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SHAKESPEARE’S RICHARD III: HERO OR VILLAIN?

” Never let it be said that fate itself could awe the soul of Richard.

           Hence babbling dreams, you threaten here in vain;

           Conscience avaunt, Richard’s himself again”

(The tragical history of King Richard the Third)[1]


 

Richard’s himself again: or is he?

There is a moment in Olivier’s film of Shakespeare’s play ‘The Tragedy of King Richard the Third’ that is not Shakespearean. It occurs during the Bosworth scene just as the king is about to ride into battle. Unnerved by the ghostly apparitions in the night of his vengeful victims, Richard’s courage seems to desert him (‘O Ratcliffe, I fear, I fear ‘). However, the sight and sound of Richmond’s army approaching rouses his natural ‘heroical temperament’ and as he rides away he whispers in White Surrey’s ear ‘Richard’s himself again’, which is not a phrase you will find in any extant Quarto or Folio edition of the play. It is, in fact, an interpolation from Coley Cibber’s seventeenth century adaptation and a small but significant example of Olivier’s editing. Its purpose is to reinforce the notion that Richard’s courage and resolution are unimpaired on the morning of battle. Its importance to Cibber (and presumably to Olivier also) is that it counters the insinuation in some interpretations of the play that King Richard was demoralized by guilt, fear and desperation at Bosworth.

 

Even though Olivier’s film is so heavily modified that much the subtlety of Shakespeare’s original play is lost, it should not be thought that his adaptation is inartistic. He is simply one of a number of distinguished actors and directors who between the reigns of the first and second Elizabeth have imposed their artistic ambition on the play. The point is that Shakespeare’s plays are not fossils set in stone. They are each subject to historical relativity and usage. Succeeding generations of actors, directors and producers have adapted them according to their artistic taste or the cultural, social and political ethos of their society. Indeed, it is possible that this play was used as a metaphor for exploring the concerns of contemporary first Elizabethans as well as those of later cultures. Modern performances of the play have portrayed Richard as a proxy for Hitler, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, and ‘Rikki Ortega’ (a fictitious Californian gangster) among others.[2] Henry Goodman in the RSC’s 2003 production found ‘parallels for Richard’s deranged mind’ in the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter.[3] Anthony Sher (1984), looking for clues of Richard’s stage personality studied the psychology of the real serial killer and necrophile Dennis Nilsen who murdered at least twelve men between 1978 and 1983. Contemporary socio-cultural themes such as physical and mental disability, gender, racial and class discrimination, and the importance of Richard III as a ‘case study’ of tyranny, are all now aspects of modern performances. [4] In fact, so different is the public taste for this play today that I wonder whether Shakespeare would recognize it as the one he wrote for Richard Burbage in the last decade of the sixteenth century.

 

Sign of the times

The play that Shakespeare actually wrote was an immediate smash-hit financially and critically. Moreover, Burbage’s portrayal of Richard was so powerful that it defined performances of the play for generations afterwards and contributed an epic snippet of Shakespearean erotic mythology, which we learn from John Manningham, a student at the Inner Temple, who wrote in his diary in 1602: ‘Upon a time when Burbage played Richard III there was a citizen grew so far in liking with him, that before she went from the play she appointed him to come that night unto her by the name of Richard III. Shakespeare, overhearing their conclusion, went before, was entertained and at his game ere Burbage came. The message being brought that Richard III was at the door, Shakespeare caused return to be made that William the Conqueror was before Richard III.’ I don’t know whether this anecdote is true or not, but it is at the very least an indication of the sensuousness of Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard and the popularity of his play.

 

The old adage that ‘plays are meant to be performed not read’ may be corny but it’s true nonetheless. The importance of actors and directors in shaping our opinion of this play cannot be overstated. In my copy of the RSC’s text, it states quite clearly that the best way to understand this play is to see or ideally to participate in it. It is my aim in this article to explore the theme of change in the production, presentation and performance of Richard III. Naturally, I am aware that it is this play that is in no small part responsible for the historical Richard’s bad reputation. Nevertheless, having written some articles in favour of the factual Richard III, I feel compelled to write a few lines in defence of the fictional one and the man who created him.

 

The distinction I make between the fictional and the factual Richard is not artificial and it is important. It is ignored or blurred too often and for too long in discussions and analysis of the play or the man. [5]  There are almost as many myths about the play as there are about Richard. Chief among these is the notion that Shakespeare is personally to blame for the misjudgement of history. I hope to show that is not true and that Shakespeare was far from being a Tudor stooge. While there is no doubt that he embraced the Tudor narrative of Richard as a villain or that he structured his play around the Tudor histories of Thomas More and Edward Hall, Shakespeare doesn’t make Richard out to be as bad as he might have done.

 

‘Matters of state, not fit to be suffered’

We now have a better appreciation of Tudor bias. The depiction of Richard as a monstrous villain without any redeeming characteristics was necessary to bolster Henry VII’s weak royal title. The fact is that in Tudor England and particularly during the Elizabethan period the condemnation of Richard in literature was practically unanimous. Regardless of his personal opinion, therefore, Shakespeare had little choice other than to conform to the ‘tenets of Tudor orthodoxy’. The Privy Council enforced strict censorship of ‘certain matters of state not fit to be suffered’. Shakespeare would have been extremely foolish to depart from the prescribed doctrine on touchy issues such as the legitimacy of the Tudor dynasty.[6] The contemporary notion of kingship held that it was contrary to God’s law to depose a crowned and anointed king. Even a tyrant enjoyed God’s protection; however, whereas a tyrant must be endured a usurper was outside God’s law and could be overthrown with impunity. It was, therefore, necessary to depict Richard III as a usurper and a tyrant. Otherwise, it would call into question Tudor legitimacy and, more importantly, the validity of Elizabeth’s succession.[7]

 

In that context, it is all the more remarkable that Shakespeare does not depict Richard as the unrelieved monster of Tudor dogma. He is charismatic and his sardonic humour soon has the audience laughing with him; indeed, they are, in a sense, his co-conspirators. From the moment he enters the stage, Richard takes control of the play and the audience. Conversely, Shakespeare does all he can to downplay Richmond’s role. He writes nothing to make him personally attractive to the audience. He is not even mentioned until the fourth act and doesn’t appear on stage until the last. There is no scope for the audience to form any sort of relationship with such a boring, distant and obscure antagonist. Neither does Shakespeare write anything to counter suggestions that Richmond’s claim to the throne is questionable. In fact, it is soon clear that Richard cannot be defeated by any human adversary, least of all Richmond whose sole purpose is to be the clunky deus ex machina figure who is still alive at the end;[8] it is an indication of his dramatic irrelevance. I will return to these points later but for now I want to mention the play’s textual history.

 

Textual problems

Shakespeare wrote this play either in 1692 or 1694. The case for 1692 is based entirely on speculation about Shakespeare’s professional relationship with Ferdinando Lord Strange, a descendant of William Stanley the earl of Derby.[9] Although that date cannot be dismissed out of hand, it seems more likely that the play was written in 1594 for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. They were by far the most important and influential company of actors and in Richard Burbage they had the greatest actor of his generation. Writing for them was a good career move for Shakespeare who needed a star actor to play Richard. The Tragedy of Richard III together with the three parts of Henry VI comprised Shakespeare’s first tetralogy of history plays.[10] He wrote the second tetralogy about a few years later. Confusingly, these plays are about earlier kings: Richard II, Henry IV parts 1 and 2 and Henry V. The two tetralogies together chart the course of English history from the reign Richard II to the death of Richard III.

 

It is disappointing — to say the least — that none of the surviving Quarto and Folio texts of this play were authorised by Shakespeare. Experts cannot even be sure whether the synthetic text currently used in performance is an accurate representation of the version first performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. The Quarto text of the play (a small booklet) was printed in 1597 (Q1) and thereafter re-printed five times (in 1598,1602,1605,1612 and 1622). Unfortunately, each re-print was copied from the previous one, thus perpetuating existing errors and adding new ones. Consequently, every print after Q1 is different from every other print, which makes the Quarto version useless as a performance text. It is possible (I put it no higher) that Q1 is a ‘memorial’ version of the play assembled from memory by actors who had lost or forgotten their prompt sheets, or who wished to streamline the play for a provincial performance.[11] The First Folio (F1) version of the play was published in 1623 as part of a compendium of Shakespeare’s plays. It might have been copied from an independent manuscript that pre-dates Q1 (Is it Shakespeare’s original version? Who knows?) Understanding the relationship between these versions of the play is the most difficult textual problem of all Shakespeare’s plays; it has troubled scholars for years. F1 is longer than Q1. Whether, this us due to a reduction in Q1 or an enlargement of F1 is anyone’s guess. All we can truthfully say about these texts is that they differ from each other and are error-full.[12]

 

Coley Cibber (1671-1757) was an actor-manager, who at the turn of the eighteenth century wrote and printed a vigorous and populist adaption of Shakespeare’s play. He reduced its length by cutting all but eight hundred lines from Shakespeare and adding two thousand of his own, together with lines from Henry V and Henry VI part 3. The characters of Clarence, Edward IV, Rivers and Queen Margaret are omitted altogether. Despite being mocked at the time for its crudity, Cibber version became the standard performance text from 1700 until 1821. It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that the F1 became the preferred stage text play. Cibber understood his audience. Shakespeare’s play was too long for eighteenth century playgoers who had no connection with, or understanding of fifteenth century politics. The real problem for purists is that Cibber’s adaptation concentrates attention even more on Richard at the expense of his lively interactions with Edward, Clarence, Margaret and Buckingham, which make Shakespeare’s play so compelling.[13] In that sense, Cibber’s alterations are crude.

 

‘The Play’s the thing…’

‘The tragedy of King Richard the Third’ is indubitably a psychological profile of a dramatic villain. Richard’s solo entrance and memorable opening soliloquy are indicative of his dramatic dominance and also of Shakespeare’s artistic intention to create a star theatrical villain rather than continue the cyclic theme of atrocity and revenge, as seen in the Henrician plays.[14] It is a change, which whether intended or not, challenges the idea that the first tetralogy represent a serial epic that is intended to be seen as a set and in sequence after the second tetralogy. It is a conundrum that has produced two distinctly different schools of thought. One is teleological in nature; the other is analogical.

 

The teleological theory interprets the cycle of history plays from Richard II to Richard III within the context of Tudor historiology and literature. The death of Richard III is seen as the preordained end of a curse that had afflicted England since the murder of Richard II. In the three parts of Henry VI, Shakespeare constantly links the present with the past. He never lets us forget that the usurpation of Henry Bolingbroke and the murder of Richard of Bordeaux were the root causes of division and tumult. Professor EMW Tillyard writing in the mid twentieth century argues that all four plays are united in political themes of order and chaos, and unity and civil war. : “The main business of the play [Richard III] is to complete [the] national tetralogy and to display the working out of God’s plan to restore England to prosperity…in its function of summing-up and completing what has gone before, Richard III inevitable suffers as a detached unit.” [15] He asserts that such a conclusion is inescapable in view of the ‘plays failure to remember’ Clarence’s perjury to Warwick, Queen Margaret’s mock crowning of York, the murder of Rutland and the murder of Prince Edward by York’s sons; If it were not so, implies Tillyard, the play would not make sense to audiences. ” For the purposes of the tetralogy and most obviously for this play, Shakespeare accepted the prevalent belief that God had guided England into the haven of Tudor prosperity” [16] Tillyard’s suggestion that Richard III is a religious play can only be substantiated if it is judged according to the traditional Tudor narrative, wherein both Richard and Richmond are God’s instruments. Richard is God’s scourge; Richmond, his emissary.

 

Tillyard’s only concession to Richard’s dramatic importance is that he is so evil and depraved, and his sins are so vast that his evil is absorptive and not contagious “He is the great ulcer of the body politic into which all impurity is drained and against which all the body politic are united.”[17] Nowadays, Tillyard’s ideas are regarded as sentimental “The view from a Cambridge college window looking out at a world at war [the Second World War] and nostalgic for a more stable and comprehensible historical process”[18] Whilst there are some obvious flaws in professor Tillyard’s logic, it is ridiculous to suggest that his ideas are based on nothing more than wishful thinking. However, his assumption that all Elizabethan’s shared the Tudor view of harmony is patently untrue. There was extreme political and religious division among the population.

 

The play’s theatrical history shows that from the sixteenth century until the twenty first century, political thinkers have used it as a medium for expressing their concerns in times of oppression and/or suppression. These performances use Richard’s rise to power, his elimination of opponents, his dissembling and his amorality as an oblique warning against the onset of tyranny in their own times. The fact that the play lends itself to this approach indicates that it is far more complicated than professor Tillyard suggests. It’s a point picked up by Sir Richard Eyre, former Artistic Director of The National Theatre. His production of Richard III starring Ian Mckellen toured the world in 1990 and inspired the subsequent film. Eyre’s decision to set the play in the 1930’s during the rise of Fascism was an artistic one based on his opinion that ” We have to keep thinking of ways of doing Shakespeare’s plays. They don’t have absolute meanings. There is no fixed, frozen way of doing them. Nobody can mine a Shakespeare play and discover a ‘solution’ [sic].” [19] However, in 1991 he took the play to Rumania, which he regarded as its spiritual home and used its enduring political power as a warning against tyrants such as the Romanian despot Ceausescu, and others such as Stalin and Mao Tse Tung. Eyre even suggests that Richard III could be seen as a handbook for Tyrants.

 

I must admit that the most memorable performances that I have seen (Olivier, Mckellen, Sher and Rylance) have been when the play was performed alone rather than as one of a sequence of plays. As a schoolboy, I watched the BBC’s 1960 production ‘Age of Kings’ in which  the first and second tetralogies were broadcast over many weeks. As I recall, Paul Daneman was a drab and unconvincing Richard and Sean Connery was a surreal Hotspur. I found Peter Hall’s 1963 RSC production of the Wars of the Roses, which was based on the first tetralogy, equally uninspiring. Ian Holm’s Richard being small of stature was incapable of dominating the play physically or dramatically. I was not impressed. I learned later that this casting was deliberate. The aim was to portray Richard as just another royal pretender.

 

My difficulty with the teleological and analogical concepts is that they are prescriptive. Tillyard’s Richard is God’s instrument and therefore not responsible for his actions as the end is pre-ordained. The notion that the play is actually a metaphor for tyranny is equally limiting since it dismisses Richard as nothing more than a cruel brute of a type that historically were responsible for countless innocent deaths. In my personal opinion, neither approach does justice to Shakespeare’s artistry and this play’s complexity. The reality is that Richard displays aspects of both theories and more. We cannot even be sure of the play’s genre. Shakespeare called it a ‘tragedy’; the compilers of the First Folio, classified it as a ‘history’. In the last century, professor AP Rossiter identified elements of comedy in the play. What are we supposed to think? I don’t believe that Shakespeare’s creativity was limited by anything so rigid as genre. Polonius’ suggests as much in this little speech to Hamlet wherein he introduces ‘the actors’ to the prince. “The best actors in the world either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, not Plautus too light for the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.” [20] I like to think that Shakespeare was writing from his experience with the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.

 

Shakespeare’s description of the play as a tragedy does not imply an ethical or emotional judgement. It is a definition of the plays structure, which is based on the classical Senecan tragedies that depict the rise of great men and their downfall at fortune’s wheel.[21] It is Shakespeare’s way of heralding his artistic transition from the dramatization of chronicle histories to the creation of a histrionic and complex theatrical protagonist as the centrepiece of his drama. It was professor A P Rossiter in a lecture given ten years after Tillyard’s book who drew attention to the paradoxicality of Richard’s character, which he suggests “…decisively complicates the plays moral and political significance.[22] The problem as Rossiter sees it, is the illogicality between the concept of Richard as ‘a huge triumphant stage figure’ and his depiction by Tillyard within a rigid Tudor concept of retributive justice. Richard contradicts the expressly Christian notion of the Vice character in medieval morality plays; he is “…a heroic exemplar of humankind as being able to exert will; the world is poorer for his loss.”[23] This characterization also undermines the simplistic analogical idea that Richard is simply an evil man in a long line of evil men.

 

Shakespeare’s apparent conformity with conventional Tudor historiography is therefore complicated by his depiction of Richard as a caricature combining features from three theatrical characters familiar to Elizabethan audiences: the ‘de Casibus tragedian’[24], the demonic-comedian Vice character of the morality plays and the Marlovian Machiavellian of the Elizabethan stage. Above all, Shakespeare’s Richard is an actor. He is charming, witty, intelligent and eloquent, and dissembles his many parts so brilliantly that those whom he intends to kill do not realise until the very last moment that he is not their friend. He is Shakespeare’s version of a ‘thoroughly bad man in the role of a monarch and hero’ Rossiter describes him thus: ” He [is] a mocking comedian, a ‘Vice’ king but with a clear inheritance from the old Vice moralities: part symbol of evil, part comic devil and chiefly — on stage — the generator of roars of laughter at wickedness the audience would …condemn in reality.”[25]

 

His sardonic sense of humour is not a conventional rendering of Tudor doctrine. He makes us laugh. We are on his side. We enjoy this gritty comedy because we are Richard’s confidantes. We see the fools he dupes through his eyes and with his mind. We rejoice in their downfall. Richard is not just a consummate actor; he is also a consummate villain. He knows what he wants. He delights in telling us what he is going to do, and he does it. He can assume any mood or passion at will. He is believed without question. He has perfected simulation of every feeling and phrase to serve his purpose. And he has eliminated any weakness that might betray him, such as feelings of compunction, pity and uncertainty of mind.[26] Richard has all the qualities of the complete Machiavellian: ” …lifelong and unremitting vigilance in relentless simulation and indomitable deception.” [27] By presenting Richard in this form, Shakespeare is neither proving nor de-bunking the Tudor myth. Instead of certainty we have only ambiguity.

 

[1] Coley Cibber – The tragical history of King Richard the Third. Altered from Shakespeare by Coley Cibber, Esq. (London 1769 print) p.66

[2] John Jowett (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Oxford 2000) p.17; Annalieze Connelly (ed) – Richard III: a critical reader (Bloomsbury/Arden 2013) pp.111-150 passim.

[3] Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen (eds) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Macmillan/RSC Shakespeare 2008) p.167.

[4] Bate ibid; Connolly pp.33-45 passim; the rise of Material Culturism has politicized the play. Material Culturists use a close examination of the play’s text to identify the ‘dominant hegemonic force in society’ (e.g. Crown, Church, Family and so forth) and the methods for disseminating their doctrine/ideology. By analyzing the text Material Culturists hope to spot examples of dissent and complicity with the dominant force’s doctrine/ideology. It is a methodology that tends to spotlight those people who are disadvantaged and/or marginalized by society, by virtue of their race, religion, gender, class or disability.

[5] Stephen Greenblatt – Tyrant: Shakespeare on power (The Bodley Head 2018) pp.53-95; professor Greenblatt has an interesting theory on tyrants and especially how they come to power. His view of Richard is wholly negative. He is a ‘worthless piece of work. There is no secret about his cynicism, cruelty and [treachery], no glimpse of anything redeemable in him and no reason to believe he could ever rule the country effectively… he leaves nothing behind except wreckage. It would have been better had he never been born’. Greenblatt is a professor of the Humanities and an expert on the works of Shakespeare: I am not. Nevertheless, there is much about his book with which I disagree. It is, I believe a good example of the simplistic thinking that comes from basing an opinion of the play on a study of the text conducted in an academic vacuum without the context of performance. But most of all I cannot accept his premise that Shakespeare’s characterization of Richard is an accurate representation of the real man, or that it was ever intended to be

[6] Greenblatt pp.1-23; contains a discussion on Shakespeare’s freedom of speech in the context of late Elizabethan religious fanaticism, domestic political intrigue and the threat to the English succession from a foreign power.

[7] Jowett pp.11-16

[8] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary – “dues ex machina (literally: ‘God from the machine’): a divine power, event, or person arriving in time to solve a difficulty (often rather contrived) interposition, esp. in a novel or play”. For example, ‘and then I woke up’.

[9] Jowett PP. 4-6; Shakespeare’s manipulation of history to put a positive spin on William Stanley’s part in Richard III’s downfall has tempted some scholars to speculate that the play was written in 1692 for Lord Strange’s Men. Ferdinando Lord Strange was a descendant of the said Thomas Stanley Earl of Derby and also of Henry VII (by Henry’s granddaughter Margaret Clifford). This may explain why Shakespeare has tactfully ignored Stanley’s acquiescence in Hastings’ execution, his part in crushing Buckingham’s rebellion, the rewards he received from King Richard and his ‘wait and see’ policy in 1485. Thomas Stanley is also portrayed as leading the Stanley contingent that surrounded and killed the King, whereas it was actually his brother William. It might also explain why Thomas Stanley has such a prominent role in the final scenes: presenting Henry with his crown and predicting the joyous union of York and Lancaster. Lord Strange and his family were noted for their Roman Catholic sympathies; however, in true Stanley fashion they managed to keep on the right side of the Reformation by hunting down Jesuits. From both the protestant and the catholic perspectives, Strange’s loyalty was suspect.

[10] Jowett pp. 73-74; the three Henrician plays were first published under the following titles: The First part of Henry VI (taken from the First Folio, there being no earlier text); The Contention of the Houses of York and Lancaster (now Henry VI part 2) and The True Tragedy of Richard Duke of York and the Good King Henry the Sixth (now Henry VI part 3).

[11] Bate p.18; the title of the 1597 print makes interesting reading: “The Tragedy of King Richard the Third, containing the treacherous plots against his brother Clarence; the pitiful murder of his innocent nephews; his tyrannical usurpation; with the whole course of his detested life and deserved death. As has been lately performed by the Lord Chamberlain’s men, his servants”

[12] Jowett pp.110-120; Bate pp.9-15; both these editors provides extensive discussion on the textual chronology and problems arising from Quarto and Folio editions. See also Julie Hankey (ed) – Shakespeare’s Richard III in Performance (Junction Books 1981) pp. 27-32. It is also worth considering EAJ Honigmann (ed) – Richard III by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1968) pp. 242-244. His textual notes were still helpful to me fifty years after they were written.

[13] Bate p.16; Richard had 32% of the lines in F1; more than any other Shakespearean protagonist except Hamlet (37%). Richmond by comparison has 4% of the lines, which is an index of his artistic importance. In Cibber’s adaptation, Richard’s share rises to 40%.

[14] Richards solo appearance and his opening soliloquy are unique in the Shakespearean canon. He is the only protagonist to open and speak first in his own play.

[15] EMW Tillyard – Shakespeare’s History Plays (Penguin 1962) pp.200-04

[16] Tillyard ibid

[17] Tillyard p.208

[18] Connelly pp. 33-45;

[19] Bate and Rasmussen p.200

[20] TJB Spencer (ed) – Hamlet by William Shakespeare (Penguin 1996) p.115 Act 2, Scene 2; ‘the law of writ and the liberty plays’: Polonius is distinguishing between plays that follow classical principles, like Ben Johnson’s and plays like Shakespeare’s with greater freedom of structure. The mixture of tragical-comical-historical-pastoral seems absurd until we recall that Shakespeare wrote Cymbeline.

[21] Jowett pp. 23-24; Seneca (BC 4-AD 65) was a Roman stoic philosopher and dramatist. He is famous for ten tragical plays that depict the rise of great men and their ruination or self-destruction due to uncontrolled emotion or madness. Seneca was widely read in medieval and renaissance Christendom. His tragedies influenced Shakespeare and other Elizabethan writers.

[22] AP Rossiter – Angels with Horns: fifteen lectures on Shakespeare (Longman 1989 edition) pp.1-22; see also Jowett p.10.

[23] Jowett pp.10-11 citing Nicholas Brooke – Shakespeare’s Early Tragedies (1968) pp. 78-79.

[24] De Casibus vivorum illustrium (on the fate of famous men): this is an encyclopedia of historical biographies dealing with the fortunes and calamities of famous men from Adam until the fourteenth century: not only their lives, but also their moral virtues.

[25] Rossiter p.15

[26] Rossiter p.17

[27] Rossiter ibid

 

The strict etiquette of Elizabeth Woodville’s churching….

Leo of Rozmital

The Travels of Leo of Rozmital in the 15th century are fascinating, and if you register (free) for a virtual library card here you can read about them for 14 days. You can access up to five books all told.

Between 1465 and 1467 Leo (a Bohemian nobleman and celebrated jouster who died this day in 1486) undertook diplomatic missions for his brother-in-law, the King of Bohemia. He and his companions kept meticulous records of their travels. You can find out more about him here

Anyway, my reason for dipping into his travelling records was to glean all the information I could about travelling in Europe in the medieval period. My year of interest at present is 1394, but nothing much changed between then and the reign of Edward IV. This is how I happened upon the following passage:-

“. . .Edward IV was known for his lavish hospitality, and when the travellers had been luxuriously lodged in an inn, and had been kissed by the hostess and maids, they were formally welcomed by a herald and certain Privy Councillors. They were then given audience of the King and invited to a mighty banquet with sixty dishes, after which the King bestowed collars or badges (symbola) on his guests and knighted certain of them. He would have knighted others, but the honour was declined, perhaps on account of the fees. Later, at court, they saw Elizabeth Woodville churched in great state after the birth of the Princess Elizabeth. Another banquet was prepared, at which Warwick, the King-maker, acted as host, and after this they were conducted to an alcove, which which they watched the Queen at dinner. So strict was court etiquette that even the Queen’s mother and the King’s sisters had to kneel before the Queen while she was at table, and not a word was spoken during the whole meal, which lasted for three hours. Afterwards there was a state ball, at which Margaret of York (soon to be married to Charles the Bold of Burgundy) and other ladies danced. Then music was provided by the King’s choristers, and Tetzel tells us that here, and later at mass he had never heard such fine singing. . .”

I’m sure I can hear some medieval teeth-grinding! Warwick must have had a very fixed smile when it came to Elizabeth Woodville, and while I can imagine her mother, Jacquetta of Luxemburg, kneeling willingly enough to her, I think the King’s sisters would not have been so eager. More fixed smiles and grinding of teeth. Did they have to kneel there at her feet for three long hours? For their knees’ sake, I hope not.

There is a much more detailed description of this occasion between pages 44-49, including a mention of the queen being escorted by “two dukes”. Might these have been Richard and George? It seems the kneeling ladies were spared, being allowed to take their own seats as soon as the first course had been served to the queen. Thank goodness for that. But I’ll bet those of Edward IV’s blood were still not amused.

There is a lot more in this fascinating book—including many anecdotes, naughty and polite—and I recommend registering for a virtual library card. It is also available at Amazon.

ENGLAND’S MINORITY KINGS 1216-1483

Introduction

This essay was prompted by a sentence in John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book ‘The Private Life of Edward IV’: “ According to English custom, as the senior living adult prince of the blood royal, the duke of Gloucester should have acted as Regent — or Lord Protector as the role was then known in England — for the young Edward V, eldest son of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, who had been proclaimed king in London.” Not only is this casual generalization about the status of Gloucester’s protectorship at odds with Dr Ashdown-Hill’s otherwise careful attention to detail, it is misleading. It exposes a misconception about the constitutional position in May 1483, which is unfortunately shared by many historians and helps to perpetuate a pejorative myth about the vires of Gloucester’s actions during the late spring and summer of 1483.

 

It is a misunderstanding that is all the more trying since it is so needless. As long ago as 1953, Professor JS Roskell explained the origin of the office of Lord Protector[i]. More recently, Annette Carson (one of Dr Ashdown-Hill’s colleague on the Looking For Richard Project and co-author of their written account of the project) incorporated some of Roskell’s thinking along with contemporary fifteenth century evidence in her detailed study of Gloucester’s constitutional role as ‘Lord Protector’, which explains the position perfectly well.[ii] What these authors establish is that the office of Lord Protector, to which the king’s council appointed Gloucester on the 10 May 1483, was a limited one. The ‘Protector and Defender of the Realm and the Church in England and Chief Councilor to the King’ (to give its full title) was an office created by parliament in 1422 as part of the constitutional settlement that followed the death of Henry V. As the title implies, it is not synonymous with the position of Regent, which was a title and position that reflected authoritarian French practices, which Ralph Griffiths tells us were ‘repugnant to the English mind‘.[iii] However, as we shall see later, change was afoot due to the unique political circumstances of 1483.

 

In the four centuries that separated the Normans from the Tudors, only four English kings succeeded to the throne as children: Henry III, Richard II, Henry VI and, of course, Edward V. I will not dwell on Edward V’s minority for the reason I have already given; however, it is useful to consider the other three minorities since they provide the contextual background for what happened in 1483.

 

Henry III (1216-1272)

Henry III ascended the throne on the 18 October 1216 by right of ‘perpetual hereditary succession’; he was just of nine years old and his future looked decidedly bleak. Three-quarters of the English barons had rebelled against his father, king John, and ‘elected’ Prince Louis of France to replace him. In 1216, Louis came to England with an army of Frenchmen and English rebels to take the crown. By October, he controlled half the kingdom including London and the southern ports with the exception of Dover. In addition, John’s tyranny had damaged royal authority and the infrastructure of government to such an extent that anarchy was endemic. Henry did not have an organised executive or an exchequer with which he could re-establish governance and royal authority; he did not even possess a royal seal. But worse than that he lacked the forces with which to fight the pretender Louis. His situation was desperate but not yet hopeless.

 

In May 1213 king John had signed a charter yielding his kingdoms of England and Ireland to the Roman Church as a vassal.[iv] Although as far as John was concerned this was only a means of gaining papal support for a war against his own subjects, it had beneficial repercussions for Henry and for England since it placed them under papal protection, and unified the English church and crown in what was to become a holy war against Louis and the rebel barons. It also had the immediate practical effect of ensuring that no English bishop was prepared to crown Louis, which was .a considerable handicap for him since he was unable to transform his status as a royal claimant into the divine status of a crowned and anointed king.[v] Henry’s own coronation on the 28 October in the Abbey Church, Gloucester gave him a distinct advantage in establishing his superior claim to the throne. It was, however, a condition of the service that he paid homage to Pope Honorius II for his throne; it was a small price to pay to acquire the divinity that protected him from death or deposition by his human enemies, unless it was God’s will. He still had to avoid being conquered by Louis, since that might be regarded as a sign of God’s will. Following the coronation, loyalists minds turned to the formation of a minority council, the nature and form of which was dictated by the circumstances and not custom.

 

Although it was necessary to organise resistance against Louis’ invasion, the most pressing need was to restore the English barons’ faith in royal authority. Only thus would they be willing to pledge their loyalty to Henry instead of Louis. The Henricians knew the dead king’s wishes as they had his will, in which he entrusted his posterity to the Pope and appointed a council of thirteen men, ‘those whom he most relied upon’, “to render assistance to his sons for the recovery of their inheritance”.[vi] In particular, he commended the guardianship of Henry to William Marshall, earl of Pembroke; for he feared that his heir would ‘never hold the land save through him’.[vii] Although William Marshal was the most famous of Henry’s chosen councilors, he was not the first. Lord Guala Bicchieri Legate of the Apostolic See bore the prime responsibility for consolidating Henry’s succession and restoring royal authority. As Henry’s feudal overlord and head of the Roman Church, Pope Honorius III ‘recognized no bounds on the authority he could exercise in England’.[viii] He sanctioned Guala’s to do whatever was expedient to help young Henry and his kingdom ‘without appeal’. Loyalist councilors were urged to submit to the Legate ‘humbly and devotedly’. Consequently, this minority council is unique in our history.

 

Despite Guala’s authority, it was obvious that he was unsuited to fight the king’s war or to conduct the day-to-day affairs of state. So, those present at the coronation prevailed ‘by their ‘common counsel’ upon William Marshall to assume the mantle of Henry’s guardian as envisaged by the late king. William Marshall had remained faithful to king John from personal loyalty and not from conviction. It was well known that he quarreled with John about policy and he was not tainted with his tyranny. [ix] Marshall’s participation in the minority council was necessary because he was the man most able to unite the English barons against the French invader and despite his old age he was still a redoubtable warrior. He planned and led the successful war against Louis and carried out the day-to day administration of state business. He was particularly adept at using royal patronage to ‘buy’ the rebel barons’ support for Henry. Marshall’s appointment was not a nominal appointment, but neither was Guala a titular leader of the council. He was heavily involved in the council’s major decisions and issued orders to Marshal on purely secular matters, requiring him ‘to do as he was bound to do for the honour of king and kingdom.’[x] The third member of a triumvirate at the head of the council was Peter de Roche, bishop of Winchester. He was appointed as Henry’s tutor. It was a sensible arrangement since neither Guala nor Marshall would be able to take personal care of the king. Later, an argument developed about whether de Roche derived his authority from the council or from Marshall.

 

Henry III’s minority lasted for eleven years. Even after Guala’s resignation in 1218 (He was replaced by Pandulf as Legate.) and Marshall’s death in 1219 (He was succeeded by Hubert de Burgh.) it proved to be the most remarkable minority rule in English history. During it, the Plantagenets rather than the Capetian kings of France were confirmed as the ruling dynasty; England was recued from anarchy and Magna Carta was enshrined into English law.[xi] It also had significant constitutional ramifications. The ‘Great Council’ that met regularly to advise the king during his minority and later during his personal rule was the first conception a national Parliament, which became an institution that existed regardless of whether the king was young or old, weak or strong. [xii] I mention these events because they inform our understanding of the respective roles of William Marshall and Legate Guala, and their successors in the minority government.

 

Professor David Carpenter’s describes William Marshall as “the (sole) Regent” because he granted royal patronage, restored royal authority and dispensed justice.[xiii] It is a reasonable description of Marshall’s position; especially, as Henry’s own appellation for Marshall was ‘our ruler and the ruler of our kingdom‘, which is compatible with the notion of a regent. However, as we shall see, the relationship between Marshall and Guala was not straightforward. Its complexity is best illustrated in the revised version of Magna Carta that was issued in November 1216; wherein, the king declares: “But because we have not as yet any seal, we have caused the present Charter to be sealed with the seals of our venerable father the Lord Gualo (sic), Cardinal Priest by the title of Saint Martin, Legate of the Apostolic See; and of William Marshal Earl of Pembroke, the guardians (my emphasis) of us and of our kingdom, at Bristol the twelfth day of November, in the first year of our reign.” [xiv] The description of Guala and Marshall as ‘our guardians’ necessarily casts doubt on the suggestion that Marshall governed alone as regent. More significant though, is the fact that both of the guardians’ seals were used to authenticate the charter. All of which is inconsistent with the notion of Marshall as regent; a position, which by definition involves the personal rule by an individual exercising royal authority (my emphasis) where the monarch is a minor, absent or incapacitated.[xv]

 

Even more serious, is the possibility that Marshall did not actually exercise the authority of a regent. For example, it was Guala who proposed and sanctioned the re-issuing of Magna Carta as a peace offering to the English rebels.[xvi] Naturally, he acted in unison with the council, including Marshall, but it seems unlikely that the charter could have been issued without Guala’s agreement. It is a hypothesis that does not rely on the fact that the Pope had previously opposed Magna Carta, but on the premise that as the late king’s feudal overlord, he held wardship of his heir until he came of age. Thus, Guala was acting with papal authority as the leader of the minority council. Conversely, William Marshall’s authority was political and limited since it relied on his election by the great council. He acted only with and by the consent of the English polity.[xvii] Marshall was the public face of the council because he was best suited to that role; however, the implication that he was unable to initiate high-policy without deference to Guala is inescapable. The fact that Guala and Marshall worked harmoniously together in the common interest does not render this anomaly irrelevant since a regent is defined by his authority and not by his workload.

 

Richard II (1377-99)

When Richard II inherited his grandfather’s throne in 1377 his subjects hoped he would reverse England’s failing fortunes. The chancellor, bishop Houghton caught the public mood in his opening address to Richard’s first parliament. “Richard, he said, had been sent by God in the same way that God had sent his only son into the world for the redemption of his people.”[xviii] The expectation that he was England’s new messiah was a burden Richard found hard to bear.

 

Insofar as Henry III’s minority may have been a model, it was disregarded in 1377. Then as in 1216 the nature and form of Richard’s minority was determined by circumstances. Edward III’s senility and the illness of the Black Prince had left a power vacuum at court that was filled by Alice Ferrers the king’s unscrupulous mistress and her shifty associates. The Good Parliament (1376) had restored some order and probity by taking conciliar control of the government. However, John duke of Lancaster (John of Gaunt) in his capacity as Steward of the Realm restored the primacy of the royal authority by overturning the parliament’s conciliar approach, much to the chagrin of the three estates. Unfortunately, there was nobody of the stature of William Marshall to unite the Lancastrian faction with their opponents, or anyone of the sagacity of Guala to lead them with moderation and wisdom. The king’s paternal uncles who might ordinarily be expected to fulfill that function were considered to be either untrustworthy or incapable, or both. John of Gaunt was the senior royal adult and the most powerful man in England: he was also the most unpopular. Ambitious to a fault, ‘time honoured Lancaster’ had his own regal ambitions, if not in England and France then in the Iberian Peninsular. However, as a failed soldier and diplomat in the French wars, and a disastrous Steward of the Realm, Gaunt was simply unacceptable to the three estates. Richard’s other royal uncles, Edmund Earl of Cambridge and Thomas Earl of Buckingham were considered dilettantes in affairs of state, lacking the prestige or gravitas to lead a minority government. If the idea of a regent was ever mooted in council, it was quickly dropped

 

If the councilors who met shortly after Richard’s coronation had a plan, it seems to have been to prevent Lancaster or any other powerful individual from seizing the reigns of government. Their presumption that the pre-pubescent Richard was fully competent to rule personally was probably based on the notion that the royal estate was inseparable from the king’s person. It might have been naïve to presume so, but it was not mindless. The legal doctrine of capacities was known to parliament but its scope was limited. For example, a legal distinction could be made between the spiritual and temporal capacities of a prelate, or between the private and public capacities of the king’s Chancellor; however, the office of king and the person of the king were considered to be indivisible. Doubts about this were expressed during the troubled reign of Edward II but they were condemned by the barons and were not raised again during the fourteenth century. According to the English constitutional view, the royal estate (i.e. sovereignty) could not be alienated or delegated save in certain specific circumstances, which were not relevant in 1377. Therefore, even if the king was a minor or infirm his royal authority was held to be unimpaired. In practical terms this meant that anyone wanting to control policy had to control the king. That is why there was an increasing preponderance of the late Black Prince’s household servants on the continual councils at the expense of Lancastrians.[xix] It was by those means that the continual council excluded Gaunt from active government. Nonetheless, the presumption of the king’s competence was a subterfuge. He was little more than the public face of monarchy, the visual representation of order and justice. The continual council, though ostensibly the king’s advisors, was in reality the controlling force of government.

 

The composition of the council varied considerably over the three years of its existence. It was meant to be representative of the different strata of the landed classes: two prelates, two earls, two barons, two bannerettes and four knights. As I have already said, the actual membership reflected political affiliations that exposed the diminution of Lancastrian power. Neither Gaunt nor his brothers sat on the council; even if we allow for the possibility that parliament allocated them some general oversight of the government, the absence of the king’s uncles from the council suggests a remarkable change in the balance of power. Between 1377 and 1380, there were three different continual councils, the last two being slimmer and included an even greater preponderance of the Black Prince’s men.[xx] They achieved some success in restoring stability to the government and prudence to public finances, and they did not succumb to the corruption of previous administrations. Nonetheless, their domestic and foreign policies were generally regarded as failures at the time and since: “ A conciliar regime by its very nature was unlikely to excel in either clarity of vision and efficiency of policy making. It’s strength lay in the opportunity it afforded to achieve harmony through consensus.”[xxi] The tragedy of the time was that harmony was probably never achievable among such a dysfunctional polity. In the parliament of 1380, the Speaker, John Gisburgh accused the continual council of financial mismanagement and demanded their dismissal, adding: “…the king was now of great discretion and handsome stature, and bearing in mind his age, which is very near that of his noble grandfather, whom God absolve, at the time of his coronation (not so!); and at the beginning of his reign had no other councilors than the customary five principal officers of his kingdom.” What Gisburgh was advocating was an end to Richard’s minority and a return to normal government.[xxii] It marked the end of this type on conciliar minority but not the end of the need for continual councils to control Richard’s later excesses.

 

Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470)

King Henry VI succeeded to the English throne following the death of his father on the 31 August 1422; he was barely nine months old. On his deathbed Henry V disposed of his two kingdoms in a codicil to his will. France he entrusted to the regency of his brother John Duke of Bedford. To his youngest brother Humphrey Duke of Gloucester he committed England, signifying that the duke should have ‘the principal safekeeping and defence’ of his beloved son’ (tutela et defensionem nostril carissimi filii principales).[xxiii] These words are important; especially ‘tutela’, since it implied that duke Humphrey was to have the powers of a regent. When parliament met in November to settle the constitutional arrangements for Henry VI’s minority, they had two alternatives. They could grant the late king’s wishes and allow Humphrey to govern the realm as he claimed or they could heed the lessons of the past to devise a tailored settlement. The settlements of 1216 and were of little or no practical value as a precedent, since their circumstances were irrelevant to the situation in the first quarter of the fifteenth century. Initially, the force of Henry’s will and codicil attracted the support of some lords towards Gloucester’s claim (according to the duke anyway). That changed, however, when they realized the implication of his construction of the codicil. The principal objector was Bedford whose position as the senior royal duke and heir presumptive would be prejudiced if Gloucester obtained the regency of England. The other English lords were also anxious; they were not unnaturally keen to preserve English sovereignty in the dual Anglo-French monarchy that subsisted.[xxiv] Therefore, they could not ignore Bedford’s interests by giving away powers that might belong to him, particularly as he was necessarily detained in France.[xxv]

 

The constitutional debate that began on the 5 December 1422 was parliament’s most important business. The lords were determining the governance and defence of the realm and the importance of the occasion cannot have been lost on them. Not only was Henry VI a babe in arms and therefore, unlikely to be crowned for many years but also there were two thrones to consider.[xxvi] At least one historian considers the untimely death of Henry V to have been the ‘most consequential event in the history of Lancastrian monarchy between 1399 and 1461’. Doubtless it was also a significant factor in ‘moulding’ English constitutional ideas for many years to come.[xxvii] It is all the more disappointing, therefore, that neither the debate nor the arguments are recorded in the Parliamentary Roll. It contains only the details of the outcome. Eventually the lords, with the assent of the commons, devised a compromise.[xxviii] John duke of Bedford was appointed ‘Protector and Defender of the Realm and of the English Church, and Chief Councilor of the king’. In Bedford’s absence, that title and its accompanying powers would fall to the duke of Gloucester. It was a pragmatic solution that recognized existing constitutional doctrine and also probably reflected parliament’s fear that either or both the royal uncles might try to impose a regency government on England. The creation of a protectorate scotched that idea. Bedford accepted the decision gracefully; Humphrey, through gritted teeth. He was clearly unhappy at not being given the authority he wanted.

 

Though we do not have an official record of the debate, we do have an unenrolled ex post facto note of Gloucester’s claim, which has been incorporated as an Appendix to the modern translation of the Parliamentary Roll. It is almost certainly a self-serving document as suggested by Anne Curry. Nevertheless, it gives us the gist of Gloucester’s protest and an inkling of his ambition. He claimed the principal tutelage and protection of the king by right of his brother’s codicil, “which codicil was read, declared and assented to by all the lords” who ‘beseeched’ him to take the principal tutelage and protection of the king and promised to help his cause. He alluded to a commons petition that he should to possess the governance of the realm; which petition, he argued, was not satisfied by the proposal that he should be merely ‘defender of the realm and chief councilor’. He also claimed tutelage of the kingdom by right of law: “Whereupon, my lord, wishing that neither his brother of Bedford nor himself should be harmed by his negligence or default, has had old records searched, and has found that, in the time of Henry the third, William Marshall, earl of Pembroke, who was not so close to the king as my lord is to our liege lord, was called ruler of the king and kingdom of England [rector regis et regni Angliae]. So in conclusion, he thinks it reasonable that either he should, in accordance with the desire of the commons, be called a governor or else, according to this record, ruler of the kingdom [rector regni] but not of the king [regis][xxix] as he does not wish to claim as much authority as William Marshall did. So he desires to take upon himself this charge by the assent of the council with the addition of the word defender according to the desire and appointment of the lords.[xxx] The note concludes with Gloucester’s assurances that (being ‘ruler’) he would do nothing of substance or flout the common law, save by the advice of council. He also acknowledged that nothing agreed could be to the prejudice of his brother Bedford’s rights.

 

Given Gloucester’s conviction that the governance of the realm belonged to him personally as of right and by virtue of his late brother’s will, it is hardly surprising that the next few years were marked by his resentment and consequently by disharmony within the conciliar regime. On the 3 March 1428 (during the 1427 parliament), while Bedford was away, Gloucester made another attempt to redefine authority in his favour[xxxi]. ‘Having had’, he said, ‘diverse’ opinions from several persons concerning his authority, he desired the lords to deliberate and carefully reconsider his power and authority for the avoidance of doubt’. He declared himself willing to leave the chamber whilst his request was debated. Indeed, so strong was his attitude that he refused to return to the chamber unless the lords reached a decision. The lords, without the commons (Presumably the lords were acting in a judicial capacity.) gave judgement through Henry Chichele archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop reminded Gloucester that in 1422 the lords had given mature consideration to his claim, during which they discussed the law and precedent And they had adjudged his claim to be illegitimate since it was not based on the law of England; which law, the late king had no power to alter or change in his lifetime or by his will, without the assent of parliament. However, to keep the peace they had determined that ”… you (Gloucester), in the absence of my Lord Bedford, your brother, should be chief of the king’s council, and have therefore devised for you a different name from the other councilors, not the name of ‘tutor’, lieutenant, governor or of regent, nor any name that might imply governance of the realm, but the name of protector and defender, which implies a personal duty of attention to the actual defence of the realm both against enemies overseas, if necessary, and against rebels within.[xxxii] If the lords had wished Gloucester to have more power, said the archbishop, they would have granted it to him. Furthermore they were amazed that he should now ask for more, especially as he and his brother had accepted this compromise when it was made; since when, of course, the king ‘had advanced in years and intelligence’. Finally, Gloucester was required to be satisfied with his current position and to remember that he had no power in parliament in the presence of the king, save as a duke and that his office was held at the king’s pleasure. It was an unequivocal rejection of the notion that Gloucester (or indeed Bedford for that matter) was regent or had the authority of a regent, during the king’s minority. The lords explicitly reserved to themselves the right to govern during the minority or incapacity of the king, whether in council or in parliament. Although the lords’ anger is palpable and Gloucester received a stern rebuke for his cheek such as no royal duke usually experienced, their decision was not made in pique but only after careful consideration. By rejecting the king’s codicil and by their words, parliament was making a distinction between the civil inheritance of an estate by a will and the constitutional disposal of the kingdom by royal prerogative.[xxxiii] It is a clear that they did not consider the crown to be normal heritable property or subject to the civil laws of inheritance.

 

Gloucester’s claim for tutelage also raised a grave constitutional issue since it included the power to exercise the delegated royal authority, implying a separation of the king’s estate between his person and his office. This was contrary to English law since it was generally held that whatever the disability of the king (‘nonage or infirmity’ to use Chrimes’ quaint phrase), his royal authority was unimpaired; furthermore, this authority resided in the king’s person alone and could not be exercised by any other individual. We see this principle enunciated in a council meeting that took place in 1427, whilst Bedford was in England; wherein it was pronounced that (and I am paraphrasing) ‘even though the king is now of tender age, the same authority rests in his person this day as shall rest in the future when he comes of age.’ Moreover, the council concluded that if, due to ‘the possibility of nature’, the king could not indeed rule in person then ‘neither God nor reason would that this land should stand without governance’; in such a case royal authority rested with the lords spiritual and temporal.[xxxiv] Nobody can doubt that in 1422 Henry’s royal estate was incomplete by virtue of his infancy, ‘since it lacks will or reason, which must be supplied by the council or parliament’. The impossibility of alienating or delegating royal authority is further illustrated by the care with which both parliament and the protector avoided any imputation that their settlement established a partition of the source of authority. Gloucester claimed to be rector regni (governor of the kingdom); he did not claim to be rector regis (governor [tutor?] of the king).

 

Conclusion

The historiographies of these three reigns chart the evolution of English minority governments from the ambiguity of William Marshall’s ‘regency’ in 1216 until parliament’s rejection of duke Humphrey’s claim for tutelage in 1428. During that period the guiding   principle was to preserve the integrity of royal authority through consensus rather than autocracy. Although there was undoubtedly an ideological element to this thinking, the real driving force was political pragmatism. It was believed necessary in each reign, though for different reasons, to protect the integrity of royal authority from the possibility of abuse by an unscrupulous or overly ambitious regent. Consequently, each settlement was driven by the realpolitik of the day rather than by precedent or custom. This is also true of Edward V’s minority.

 

Edward IV’s death was unexpected and unexplained; consequently, its dramatic consequences could not be foreseen by Richard duke of Gloucester or the Council. Edward V’s maternal family led by his mother Elizabeth Grey (née Woodville)[xxxv] mounted a coup d’état against the lawful government and the late king’s wishes. Their aims were to crown young Edward before the Privy Council could arrange a protectorship and to rule the kingdom through a compliant king. Their attempt to persuade the council to their cause in the absence of the king’s senior uncle and their disregard for Edward’s deathbed codicil, whilst not illegal, were not benevolent acts. They raised the spectre of civil war and a return to the social unrest and injustice that had blighted the 1440’s and 1450’s, and triggered the Wars of the Roses. Ultimately, the coup was unsuccessful due to Gloucester’s timely intervention and, more significantly, because the Woodvilles lacked support among the lords. In May 1483 the council’s appointed Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector. This was consistent with the 1422 settlement and with Edward IV’s deathbed codicil, and it consolidated Gloucester’s position as leader of the minority government. However, as we shall see, the council did not exclude the possibility that his powers might be enlarged later, as a bulwark against Woodville ambition.

 

The sermon drafted by the Chancellor (bishop John Russell) for Edward V’s first parliament provides an insight into the councils thinking and their intention. They proposed to enlarge the Lord Protectors powers to include tutelage and oversight of the king and the kingdom.[xxxvi] It is neither necessary nor desirable for me to repeat or to summarize Annette Carson’s analysis of the chancellor’s draft sermon, or to comment on her conclusions about the form of post-coronation government envisaged by the council. My only interest is in emphasizing the radicalism of this proposal, which was completely outwith the conciliar principles of past minorities and challenged the traditional English view of kingship. Quite why the council thought it was necessary to abandon the safeguards afforded by the 1422 model is not certain. However, there are sufficient clues in the draft sermon for us to draw the reasonable inference that political pragmatism was their primary motivation. It was considered necessary for Gloucester had to have full ‘tutelage and oversight’ of the king’ because the Woodvilles were manifestly unfit to do so and/or they had abandoned their responsibility for the king’s person. [xxxvii]. Nobody doubted that they would continue their attempt to control the king, which if successful would be to the detriment of the peace and stability of the kingdom. This speaks well of the trust they espoused in Gloucester and the profundity of their mistrust of the king’s maternal relatives . Although I take note of the fact that Edward V’s coronation never took place and his first parliament never met, it is beyond my scope to examine the reasons for that

[i] JS Roskell – The Office and Dignity of Protector of England with special reference to its origins (English Historical Review Volume 68 April 1953) pp. 193-233

[ii] Annette Carson – Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector and High Constable of England (Imprimus/Imprimatur 2015). See also http://www.annettecarson.co.uk/357052362 for a useful and freely available summary of Carson’s analysis.

[iii] Ralph Griffiths – The Reign of King Henry VI (Sutton Publishing 1998 edition) p.19

[iv] W L Warren – King John (Eyre Methuen 1978, 2nd edition) p. 208.

[v] Sir Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century 1216-1307 (Oxford 1988 2nd edition) pp.1-8; the acts of anointing and crowning a king transformed the nature of monarchy. Not only was the office of king divine but now the person of the king was also divine. Humankind could not remove a crowned and anointed king, unless it was the will of God. Any resistance to him was treason and a sin against God’s law.

[vi] Warren p. 255; John’s executors were: the lord Guala, Legate of the Apostolic See, Peter lord bishop of Winchester, Richard lord bishop of Chichester, Silvester lord bishop of Worcester, Brother Amery of Saint Maurie, William Marshall earl of Pembroke, Ranulph earl of Chester, William earl Ferrers, William Brewer, Walter Lacy, John of Monmouth, Savary de Mauléon, and Fawkes de Breauté. John’s last will and testament is the earliest surviving example of a royal will. Considering its importance, it is a remarkably short document, which is more concerned with ensuring John’s acceptance into Heaven than the detailed disposition of his estate

[vii] D A Carpenter – The Minority of Henry III (Methuen 1990), p 52; William Marshall (1146-1219) was not of royal stock; he was the younger son of a minor Anglo-Norman noble and expected to earn his way in the world. As an errant knight, Marshall earned a fearsome reputation as a jouster and an equally impressive reputation of faithful service to five English kings in peace and in war. Stephen Langton, archbishop of Canterbury, eulogized him as ‘the best knight who ever lived’ and he was dubbed by his first (anonymous) biographer as ‘the greatest knight in the world.’ Marshall inherited his earldom through marriage and by 1216 he was a man of considerable wealth and power. Despite his age (he was now seventy), Marshall promised to be a stabilizing influence for the king and his government.

[viii] Carpenter, p. 13

[ix] Carpenter, p. 18

[x]  Carpenter, p. 52, note7

[xi] Carpenter, p.6

[xii] Sir Maurice Powicke – The Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1988 2nd edition) pp. 1-8

[xiii] Carpenter, pp.13-54

[xiv]file:///Volumes/RICHARD%20III/Murrey%20and%20Blue%20essays/11.%20Lord%20Protector/1216%20Magna%20Carta,%20the%20full%20text.webarchive

[xv] The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary 5th edition (2005); ‘Regent: 1) that which rules, governs or has sovereignty; a ruling power or principle, 2) a person invested with royal authority by or on behalf of another; esp a person appointed to administer a kingdom or state during the minority, absence or incapacity of a monarch or hereditary ruler’. See also Chambers Dictionary 13th edition (2014); ‘Regent: a ruler or person invested with interim or vicarious authority on behalf of another.’

[xvi] Carpenter, p.23

[xvii] Carpenter, p. 55

[xviii] Nigel Saul – Richard II (Yale 1997) p.18

[xix] 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]).

[xx] Saul pp.31-55, provides an analysis of the membership and a narrative of their downfall.

[xxi] Saul p.45

[xxii] C. Given-Wilson (ed) – The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, Volume 6 (Geoffrey Martin and Chris Given-Wilson eds) (The Boydell Press 2005) p.149 [PROME].

[xxiii] PROME Vol 10 (Anne Curry ed) p.6; citing P Strong and F Strong ‘ The last will and codicils of Henry V, EHR, 96 (1981) 99 et al.

[xxiv] PROME Vol 10 p.7; Curry suggests that fears were first expressed about the dual monarchy following the Treaty of Troyes (1420). See also Bertram Wolffe – Henry VI (Yale 1981) pp. 28-35, & 44; and Griffiths pp.19-24.

[xxv] Griffiths p.21; Bedford’s friends were in the House and they knew of his ‘position’. Furthermore his letter to the Mayor and Corporation of London setting out his objections was before the lords. The respective appointments of Bedford and Gloucester under Henry’s will were determined largely by circumstances. Ordinarily, Bedford remained in England as Keeper of the Realm in the king’s absence abroad, whilst Gloucester generally accompanied the king. However, in 1422 Bedford went to France with reinforcements for the army and Humphrey returned to England as Keeper of the Realm. The weakness of Gloucester’ position became clear at a council meeting on the 5 November 1422 when the council determined that his tenure as Keeper of the Realm expired with Henry’s death and that he could only open parliament with their consent. It was a body blow to the ambitious Gloucester.

[xxvi] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3

[xxvii] Griffiths p.20

[xxviii] PROME Vol 10 pp. 3 and 23-24

[xxix] PROME Vol 10, p.6; Anne Curry suggests that the Latin word rector could be translated as Regent.

[xxx] PROME Vol 10, Appendix, item 1. ‘The issue of the title of the duke of Gloucester’, p.61; citing as a source PRO C 47/53/12 (in Middle English), printed in SB Chrimes, ‘The pretensions of the duke of Gloucester in 1422 EHR 45 (1930). 102-3

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

[xxxii] PROME Vol 10, ibid

[xxxiii] PROME; ibid

[xxxiv] Chrimes pp. 36-37; citing Proceedings and Ordinances of the Privy Council (Sir Harris Nicolas – ed) iii, pp. 231-36

[xxxv] I write on the basis that the ‘marriage’ of Edward IV and Elizabeth was bigamous.

[xxxvi] Chrimes pp. 167-190 with notes; see also Carson pp. 57-60 and 168-78

[xxxvii] This is a reference to Elizabeth Grey’s flight to the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey

THE TRAGEDY OF KING RICHARD 111 (NOT BY WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE)

(some personal reflections on events in England between April and the autumn 1483)

Part 1: ‘Now is the winter of our discontent…’

“ …O, full of danger is the Duke of Gloucester,

And the Queen’s sons and brothers haught and proud;

And were they to be ruled, and not to rule.

This sickly land might solace as before.”

(William Shakespeare – Richard the Third)

 ‘Edward, my Lord, thy son, our king, is dead!

King Edward IV died unexpectedly at Westminster on the 9 April 1483[1] after a short illness; the cause of his death is unknown[2]. It was expected that his eldest son Edward Prince of Wales would succeed to the throne as king Edward V. On his deathbed, the king appointed his brother Richard duke of Gloucester as Lord Protector during Edward’s minority. Duke Richard was by common consent a loyal and devoted servant to the king, who obviously realised the worth of his young brother. Yet within a few months of Edward’s death, he had deposed the boy-king Edward V, bastardized his nephews and nieces, executed four leading magnates and imprisoned others, and crowned himself king. He fought no battles and there was relatively little bloodshed. On any view, the transfer of power was spectacularly effective. The events of 1483 have divided opinion ever since. There are those who reflect the traditional “Tudor” opinion of Gloucester as a bloodthirsty usurper and tyrant. There are others who believe that his reputation has been much traduced by his enemies after his death. And there is a new, emerging, opinion that judges him as being no better, nor any worse, than the standards of his time.

A major problem in interpreting the events of April-June 1483 is establishing what actually happened and when.   As Professor Charles Ross points out, the source material is scanty, conflicting and uncertain.[3] The two primary contemporary sources for this period are Dominic Mancini the Italian cleric who was in London during the relevant period, and the second continuation of the Crowland Chronicle written in the Lincolnshire Fens by an unknown hand. As we shall see, neither source is wholly satisfactory. They are unclear, uncertain and ambiguous on many of the major events, and on the chronology. They are also partial.

“ As soon as it was clear that King Edward was dying, the queen and the marquis (of Dorset) began to develop their hopes….[4] Paul Kendall’s comment emphasizes the opportunistic character of the Woodville clan but does scant justice to their prescience. Not only were they prepared to assume the reins of government and to dominate the council but also they were well placed to deal with any opposition there might be. In early March 1483, three weeks before Edward was even ill, Earl Rivers took steps to consolidate the Woodville’s control of the heir to the throne. He obtained a written copy of the king’s patent granting him power to govern the Prince of Wales and to raise troops in the principality. Rivers also delegated his authority as Deputy Governor of the Tower of London to his nephew, Dorset. It was a risky thing to do because Rivers had no authority to delegate his power, which was in the royal prerogative. However, the risk was justified because it put power and the king’s treasury into Woodville hands where it was most needed: in London. It looks as though the Woodville’s were preparing to strengthen their control of the king’s heir with military force and positioning themselves to assume the reins of government.[5]

Within two days of the king’s death the decision was made to crown his successor on the 4 May 1483[6]. It was a decision made in haste and apparently without reference to the Privy Council or the Lord Protector. It is indicative — to say the least — of a Woodville intention to gain unfettered control of the boy king and set-up their own regency government disregarding the dead king’s intention and Gloucester’s authority as the Lord Protectors. Although for form’s sake the date for the coronation would have to be confirmed by the Privy Council, neither the queen nor her son the marques of Dorset expected any problem in getting agreement from a docile council.

‘ Tis time to speak my pains are quite forgot’

Even though Gloucester was in far away Yorkshire, he knew of the king’s death and the events in London from William Lord Hastings, a council member. His reaction to Edward’s death is not indicative of a ruthless usurper. He wrote “…the most pleasant letters to console the queen…”[7], in which he pledged his allegiance to king Edward V. He also reminded the queen of his loyalty and service to the dead king and expressed the desire that his brother’s children “might endure in their father’s realm”. He added a request that the council should reach a decision, which his services to his brother and the state alike deserved, and reminded everyone that“…nothing contrary to the law and his brothers wishes could be decreed without harm” [8]. Next, he journeyed from Middleham to York accompanied by “ … an appropriate company all dressed in mourning” Once in York, he “… held a solemn funeral ceremony for the king, full of tears. He bound by oath, all the nobility of those parts in fealty to the king’s son; he himself swore first of all”[9].

 ‘…the guilty kindred of the queen…’

The decisive meeting took place at Westminster as soon as Edward IV was buried. The Woodville aims were twofold 1) to secure Edward V’s speedy coronation and 2) to settle a regency government in their favour. The Lord Protector was a notable absentee. There are two accounts of this meeting. One is from Mancini; the other is from the Crowland Chronicler. Neither was written contemporaneously with the event or is a verbatim note of the discussion. Their value is further diminished by the fact that each author recorded only those discussions that interested him. Nonetheless, despite these handicaps, it is possible to re-construct a reasonable explanation of what was said and done at this meeting

According to Mancini, the first order of business was to settle the governance of the realm during the king’s minority. Two possibilities were discussed: first, that Gloucester should govern personally as Lord Protector in accordance with Edward’s wishes and second, that a regency government, of which the Lord Protector would be the chief member, should govern during the minority. Mancini emphasizes the queen’s fear that if Gloucester ruled alone he would usurp the throne. The Crowland Chronicle ignores this discussion, and emphasises the serious opposition to the queen’s family holding the reins of government and controlling the young king. This split in the council was a reflection of the Woodville’s unpopularity amongst some of the old Yorkist courtiers.

At some point Gloucester’s letter was read. It is important because it conveys his position quite clearly to the queen, her family and supporters and the remainder of the Privy Council. It is fully in accord with Gloucester’s reputation for integrity in public life, his duty to the realm and to his deceased brother. There is nothing here except a timely warning about the risk if the law and his brother’s wishes are ignored. The letter is doubly important because even Mancini acknowledges that it was well received by the council in general. Many members who already favoured Gloucester now openly supported his claim to govern personally as Lord Protector. Nevertheless, the Woodville dominated council rejected his request. It was another overt sign of Woodville ambition and a clear indication that they intended to exclude the senior royal duke from any serious role in government during the king’s minority. As alarming as this undoubtedly was to many members of the Privy Council, there was worse to come.

The Marquess of Dorset proposed that the king should be crowned as soon as possible. He suggested Sunday the 4 May 1483: scarcely three weeks away. The discussion turned to arrangements for bringing the king from Ludlow to his capital for the coronation. The Woodville’s and their supporter favoured a large armed escort for the king. Hastings was so disturbed by this proposal that he openly declared that he would retire to Calais unless the king’s escort was more modest. This was a threat the queen and her family could not ignore. The prospect of the Captain of Calais retreating to his stronghold from where he could command an effective fighting force to oppose them was not something they could face with equanimity. Queen Elizabeth proposed a compromise, which was agreed. A force of only two thousand soldiers would escort the King.[10]  Hastings only agreed to this because he believed that Gloucester would not bring less.   The Crowland Chronicler’s description of events highlights the division within the council and touches on Woodville unpopularity: “ All who were present keenly desired that this prince should follow his father in all his glory. The more foresighted members of the council, however, thought that the uncles and brothers on the mother’s side should be absolutely forbidden to have control of the person of the young man until he comes of age. They believed that this could not easily be achieved if those of the queen’s relatives who were most influential with the prince were allowed to bring his person to the ceremonies of the coronation with an immoderate number of horse. The view of Lord Hasting, the captain of Calais, was sound and prevailed for he protested he would rather flee than await the arrival of the new king if he did not come with a modest force”.

When it was suggested that it may be more sensible to await the Lord Protector’s views, Dorset is said to have replied scornfully: “ We are so important that even without the King’s uncle we can make and enforce these decisions.” Thus was the date of the coronation set, and also the arrangements for bringing the king to his capital.[11]

‘They do me wrong and I will not endure it!’

The temptation to see this as a Woodville coup d’état backed with force is almost irresistible. Nonetheless, the Privy Council meeting was not itself unlawful, as suggested by Kendall. It made sense after the death of Edward to ensure that the business of the realm continued as normal.   Some practical decisions were necessary. The appointment and reappointment of Judges was needed to keep the wheels of justice turning and the defence of the realm against French privateers was an urgent necessity. Furthermore, it was not unlawful to ignore the dead king’s wishes. It had happened in 1377 and again in 1422. On this occasion, the whole country expected the Prince of Wales to succeed his father on the throne. Certainly, Hastings and the anti-Woodville faction expected that to happen. Gloucester in Yorkshire thought that was what would happen, and he saw it as his duty to work towards that end. What was of concern to the more forward thinking members of the Council was the amount of control that the Woodville’s would exercise over the boy King. It is fair to assume that the Lord Protector had his own views on this as well.

Even if these actions did not amount to a conspiracy against Gloucester (itself an doubtful thesis), he would undoubtedly have seen them as a threat to him personally, and an attempt to overrule the law and his dead brother’s will. There is little doubt that he feared the Woodville’s; he would have been acutely aware of the unhappy fate of the last protector, Humphrey duke of Gloucester and other ‘protectors’ who did not always live long once the king reached his majority. It is Gloucester’s perception of the threat that is the key to his actions hereafter. The suggestion by some historians that even at this early stage he was actively trying to overthrow the young king and his government does not bear close examination. There is no doubt from the facts, as we know them, that it was the queen and her family who were the aggressors by mounting a coup. Their actions in proceeding with arrangements for a hasty coronation and settling the form of government without waiting for Gloucester to reach London suggests they wanted to achieve a fait accompli before he was in a position to stop them. Moreover, their seizure of the royal treasury and the fleet, and their provision to raise troops in Wales speak loudly for their intention to use force if necessary.

This was a power struggle in which Gloucester was at a distinct disadvantage. He had not received any official notification concerning the late king’s death or his own appointment as Lord Protector. What little he knew of events in London he got from Hastings, who was inciting him to assert his authority as protector. Second, from where he was all he could do was to react as best he could to events being driven by the Woodville agenda, as and when he heard about them. Finally, he neither controlled nor even knew the boy King Edward V. A Plantagenet in name only, Edward was raised as a Woodville by his uncle Rivers on the Welsh border. Gloucester was not a fool; he knew the danger to him if his authority as protector could not be upheld. This was the conspiracy that bedevilled his whole protectorship. What began as a political takeover aimed at marginalising him soon became an all out attempt to destroy him. He realised that for his own safety and to prevent another civil war, he must secure the person of the King[12]. Factors in his favour were: Woodville unpopularity and their apparent over confidence. They believed they were untouchable.

[1]. The mayor and citizens of York had received a (apparently false) message that the king had died on the 6 April 1483. A dirge was held for him on the 8 April 1483. See Robert Davies (editor) – Extracts from the York City Records (Nichol & Son 1843) at page 142. Davies points out that there is no reason to disbelieve the authenticity of the message. It was sufficiently convincing for a dirge to be arranged.

[2]. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors): The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986). According to the Chronicle (page 151) the king died “…though he was not affected by old age nor by any known type of disease which would not have seemed easy to cure in a lesser person”. See also R E Collins: ‘the death of Edward IV’, published in ‘Secret History: the truth about Richard III and the Princes’ by the Rev John Denning (Laversham Press 1996) and Annette Carson – Richard III: the maligned king (History Press 2013) at pages 15-28 for discussions about the ingenious, though untested and unproven, theory that king Edward was murdered by the Woodville’s so they could rule England through a compliant boy-king.

[3]. Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale 1999) at page 63

[4] Paul Murray Kendall Richard the Third (George Allen and Unwin 1955) at page 133.

[5]. See Dominic Mancini – the Usurpation of King Richard III (G J Armstrong trans) (Oxford 1969 edition) note 42 at page 114. Professor Armstrong speculates that the queen and her family were attempting to recreate the regency government of 1475, when king Edward was in France. The Prince of Wales (an infant) was declared Keeper of the Realm and lodged in Elizabeth Woodville’s house.

[6]. Sir James Gairdner – The Life and Reign of king Richard III (Longman 1878) at pages 56 and 57; see also, Professor Michael Hicks – Richard III (The History Press 2009 edition) at pages 159 and 160. I have followed Gairdner and Hicks in dating this decision no later than the 11 April 1483, possibly earlier. We also have Edward V’s letter to the town of Lynn (where his uncle Rivers had connections) dated the 14 April 1483, announcing his decision to come to London for his coronation as soon as practicably convenient. Given the timing and the distances involved, it seems logical for the queen to have written to her son with the news of his fathers death and the proposal for his coronation no later than the 11 April,

[7]. Crowland at page 155

[8]. Mancini at page 73

[9]. I have quoted extensively from Crowland because he makes the point better than I could. It is indeed fortunate for historians that Crowland is recording Richard’s movements at this time. Mancini, who never left London, had no idea what was happening outside the capital unless his sources told him.

[10]. If it is seriously suggested that a force of two thousand soldiers is a modest escort for the king, one wonders how many men the queen and her family had in mind: an army?

[11]. See Mancini at pages 74 and 75; see also Kendall at pages 168 to 171.If the King could be crowned by 4 May 1483, Richard’s protectorship would be shorn of all power and the future for him personally would be very bleak

[12]. E F Jacob – The Fifteenth Century (Oxford University 1961) at page 483. Humphrey Duke of Gloucester was appointed Lord Protector to the boy-king Henry VI during his minority. As soon as the king reached a suitable age, Humphrey was discredited and arrested on a trumped-up charge. Three days later he died of a stroke. There is no evidence he was mistreated, much less murdered, but people were suspicious. See also Ross at page 71: he shows a shrewd understanding of Gloucester’s situation, especially in view of the fact that the judicial murder of Clarence at the urging of the queen had occurred only five years prior to Edward’s death. Ross readily acknowledges that Richard’s decision to take control of the king was understandable.

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