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Elizabeth Wydeville…Serial Killer?

IMG_6008.JPGElizabeth Wydeville The Royal Window Canterbury Cathedral.

Yes,  this is a serious question.  After reading several of the late John Ashdown-Hill’s books, particularly his last one, Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey, I think it’s time to give it some serious thought.  Although prima facie it may appear absurd, after all we are talking about a real actual Queen, not a monster from a Grimms’ fairy story, I think it may be worthwhile to give some actual consideration to this question and its  plausibility.

 

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Edward IV, the Royal Window Canterbury Cathedral.  Did a careless remark made to his wife unwittingly bring about the death of Desmond?

Lets take a look at the first death that Elizabeth has been associated with – that of Thomas Fitzgerald Earl of Desmond.  The first port of call for anyone interested in this would be the excellent in-depth  article co-written by Annette Carson and the late historian John Ashdown-Hill both of whom were heavily involved with the discovery of King Richard IIIs remains in Leicester.  Here is the article.

Their assessment goes very deep but to give a brief summary – Desmond was executed on the 15th February 1468 by his successor John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, a man known for his cruel, sadistic nature and dubbed The Butcher of England by his contemporaries.   The execution was immediately followed by  armed rebellion, the Earl’s elder sons ‘raised their standards and drew their swords to avenge their father’s murder ‘ swiftly followed by  King Edward, both alarmed and displeased in equal measures,  promising  that if the Desmonds laid their arms down they would be pardoned. Edward also assured them that he had neither ordered the execution or had any knowledge of it whatsoever. This begs the question if it was not Edward,  who gave Tiptoft the go ahead to execute Desmond  – as well as it is said his two small sons? This was swiftly followed by extremely  generous grants to James, Desmond’s oldest son,  despite the Act of Attainder against his father.  Included in these grants was ‘the palatinate of Kerry, together with the town and castle of Dungarvan.  This grant may be thought to signify that in Edward’s view an injustice had been done’. This was as well as an ‘extraordinary priviledge’ – that of the Desmonds being free to choose not to appear in person before Edward’s deputy or the council in Ireland but to be able to send a representative instead. Clearly Edward had grasped that the Desmonds were, understandably, extremely wary of putting themselves in the hands of the Anglo Irish authorities.

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Richard Duke of York.  His wise and just reputation in Ireland survived long after his death.  

Various explanations  have been given as to why Tiptoft had Desmond executed.  It was given out that he had been guilty of ‘horrible treasons and felonies as well as alliance, fosterage and alterage with enemies of the king, as in giving them harness and armour and supporting them against the faithful subjects of the king’ as well as the ludicrous charge of plotting to make himself King of Ireland,

Upon Tiptoft’s arrival in Ireland in  September 1467 he had initially co-operated with Desmond and other Irish lords.  This was unsurprising as Edward IV was on extremely friendly terms with the Irish lords.    This friendship carried over from his father, Richard Duke of Yorks time in Ireland where he had been held in high regard and in fact Desmond’s father, James, had been George Duke of Clarence’s godfather.   However on the opening of Parliament on the 4th February a bill was immediately brought forward  attainting Desmond and others including his brother in law, the Earl of Kildare. Desmond was removed from the Dominican friary at Drogheda on the 14th February and swiftly executed. The others managed somehow to avoid arrest and execution until Edward, finding out what had occurred, pardoned them. This also adds to the strength of the theory that the execution had been carried out without Edward’s knowledge. This might be a good place to mention that Desmond had indeed been in England around the time of Edward’s ‘marriage’ to Elizabeth  and when much chatter was going on regarding her unsuitability as a royal bride.  There is a surviving 16th century account of Edward while  having an amicable chat with Desmond, asked him what his thoughts were regarding Edward’s choice of bride.  It is said that Desmond at first wisely held back but pushed by Edward did admit that it was thought widely that the King had made a misalliance.  This was relayed, foolishly by Edward to his new bride, perhaps  oblivious in those early days of  her capabilities. A spiteful, vindictive Elizabeth had stolen the seal from her husband’s purse as he slept and had written to Tiptoft instructing him to get rid of Desmond.  This begs the question of whether Tiptoft himself may have been unaware that the order did not emanate directly from the King.  The rest is history and a dark and terrible day at Drogheda.

Moving forward some 16 years later in 1483 we have an extant letter from Richard to his councillor the Bishop of Annaghdown in which he instructs the said Bishop to go to Desmond’s son, James,  and among other things to demonstrate  (shewe) to him that the person responsible for the murder of his father was the same person responsible for the murder of George Duke of Clarence (1).     As Carson and Ashdown-Hill point out, this is a ‘ highly significant analogy’ because, in 1483, Mancini  had written that contemporary opinion was that the person responsible for Clarence’s death was no other than Elizabeth Wydville.  Elizabeth, no doubt having discovered that her marriage to Edward was a bigamous one –  he already having a wife – namely Eleanor Butler nee Talbot – at the time of his ‘marriage’ to her,  had ‘concluded that her offspring by the king would never come to the throne, unless Clarence was removed and this she easily persuaded the king’ (1). It is highly likely that Clarence, who perhaps was of a hotheaded nature, had also become aware that Edward and Elizabeth’s marriage was null and void having been informed of this fact by Bishop Stillington.  Stillington was imprisoned and Clarence  met the same fate as Desmond – an execution regularly described by historians, of all views, as judicial murder.

IMG_2534.JPGGeorge Duke of Clarence from the Rous Roll. George was only 28 years old when he was executed in what has been described by some historians as a ‘judicial murder’

It should be remembered that shortly before his arrest Clarence had been widowed. Clarence had insisted that his wife, Isobel Neville, had been murdered – poisoned he said.  One of the acts he was accused of at his trial was of trying to remove his small son, Edward, out of England and to safety abroad. He obviously genuinely believed that Isobel had indeed been murdered, why else did he attempt to get his son out of harms way? This story has been told in many places including  Ashdown-Hill’s books, The Third Plantagenet as well as his bio of Elizabeth.  If Isobel was indeed murdered the truth has been lost with time but it can safely be said that Clarence was a victim to Elizabeth’s malice although of course Edward has to take equal blame for that. Hicks, and Thomas Penn, are among the historians who  have described Clarences’ execution as ‘judicial murder’.  Hicks in his bio on George,  states that the trial  held before a Parliament heavily packed out with Wydeville supporters was fixed. George stood not a chance and was led back to the Tower to await his fate.  He did not have to wait too long.  Penn writes ‘…his brothers life in his hands, Edward pondered the enormity of his next, irrevocable command. A week or so later, with Parliament still in session, Speaker Allington and a group of MPs walked over to the House of Lords and, with, all decorum, requested that they ask the king to get on with it‘.  Insisting that the king order his own brother’s liquidation was hardly something that Allington would have done on his own initiative. The source of the nudge could be guessed at (2).  As Penn points out Speaker Allington’s  ‘effusions about Queen Elizabeth and the little Prince of Wales were a matter of parliamentary record; the queen had awarded him handsomely appointing him one of the prince’s chancellors and chancellor of the boy’s administration’.  Thus George Duke of Clarence was toast and it appears the second victim to the malignity of the Wydeville queen. Later it was written by Virgil that Edward bitterly regretted his brother’s ‘murder’..for thus it is described by Penn… and would often whinge when asked for a favour by someone that no-one had requested a reprieve for George (not even the brothers’ mother??? Really Edward!).

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Elizabeth Wydville, The Luton Guildbook.  Cicely Neville, her mother in law is depicted behind her. Cicely’s feelings on one of her son’s bringing about the death of another son are unrecorded.

Another damning point against Elizabeth is that Richard III in the communication mentioned above, granted permission to  James, Desmond’s son to ‘pursue by means of law those whom he held responsible for his father’s death’.   Both Edward and Tiptoft were dead at this time but Elizabeth was still alive and demoted from Queen to a commoner. As it transpired James did not pursue the matter at that time and a year later it was all too late – Richard was dead and Elizabeth had been reinstated as Queen Dowager.  Further evidence regarding Elizabeth’s guilt came to light 60 years later in the 16th century in the form of a memorandum addressed by James 13th Earl of Desmond, Desmond’s grandson, to the privy council.  In an attempt to get property that had been removed from one of his ancestors returned to him James referred to the great privilege that was awarded to his earlier Desmond relatives, that of not having to appear before Anglo Irish authorities that had been granted by Edward IV because ‘the 7th Earl of Desmond had been executed because of the spite and envy of Elizabeth Wydeville”.   This memorandum also contained the earliest written account of the conversation between Edward IV and Desmond regarding Elizabeth’s suitablity as a royal consort,  the repeating of which to Elizabeth had resulted in Desmond’s murder.

It’s now not looking good for Elizabeth at this stage. There are other names, other deaths,  that begin now to  look rather suspicious. After all if Elizabeth could be involved with two deaths could there have been more?

The next deaths that need consideration are those of Eleanor Butler and her brother in law, the Mowbray Duke of Norfolk.  According to Ashdown-Hill who has researched Eleanor in depth, her death occurred while her family and protectors, particularly her sister Elizabeth Duchess of Norfolk, with whom she appears to have been close, were out of the country attending the marriage celebrations of Margaret of York to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy. This marriage had been ‘pushed forward’  by Elizabeth Wydeville (3). Of course her death may have been the result of natural causes although it’s not hard to imagine Edward and Elizabeth breathing massive sighs of relief. However karma is a bitch, as they say, and the spectre of Eleanor would later arise with tragic results and the complete fall of the House of York.

Whether Eleanor died of unnatural causes of course can now never be ascertained.   Ashdown-Hill compares her death to that of Isobel Neville in that after they first become ill it was two weeks before they died (4).  Certainly it was unexpected and must have caused shock and grief to her sister on her arrival back in England – presumably the Duchess may not have left England and her sister if she had been seriously ill and close to death.  In actual fact Eleanor died on the 30th June 1468 while Elizabeth Talbot only begun her trip back to England from Flanders on the 13th July.  Coupled with this, two of the Norfolk household were executed around this time through treasonous activity but nevertheless this must have caused disconcertment and fear to the Duke and Duchess following on so soon from Eleanor’s death. Very sadly, the Duke himself was to die suddenly and totally unexpectedly. The Duchess of Norfolk, now bereft of her husband and sister, found herself forced to agree to the marriage of her very young daughter, the Lady Anne Mowbray, to Elizabeth Wydeville’s youngest son, Richard of Shrewsbury.  This was much to her detriment being forced to accept a diminished dower in order to supplement the revenue of her young son in law.  She thereafter lived out her days in a ‘great’ house in the precincts of the Abbey of the Minoresses of St Clare without Aldgate, poorer but surrounded by loyal and loving friends most of whom had also suffered at the hands of Edward IV and the Wydevilles (5).

In summary, I’m confident that Elizabeth was deeply implicated in  the executions of Desmond, an entirely innocent man, and Clarence whom she feared because he knew or suspected the truth of her bigamous marriage.   Could there have been others? The hapless Eleanor Talbot perhaps?  Of course she was not a murderess in the sense that she actually and physically killed anyone but she did indeed ‘load the guns and let others fire the bullets’ as they say. There is little doubt that Richard Duke of Gloucester came close to being assassinated on his journey  to London and close to the stronghold of the Wydevilles at Grafton Regis, in 1483. This was down to the machinations of the Wydevilles including of course the fragrant Elizabeth who by the time he arrived in London had scarpered across the road from Westminster Palace, loaded down with royal treasure, and taken sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, a sure indication of her guilt in that plot. Richard, in his well known letter, had to send to York for reinforcements “we heartily pray you to come to us in London in all the diligence you possibly can, with as many as you can make defensibly arrayed, there to aid and assist us against the queen, her bloody adherents and affinity, who have intended and do daily intend, to murder and utterly destroy us and our cousin the Duke of Buckingham, and the old blood royal of this realm” (6).

After that dreadful day at Bosworth in August 1485, and a bit of a tedious wait, Elizabeth now found herself exulted once again this time as mother to the new Queen. She would, one have thought, reached the stage where she could at last rest on her now rather blood soaked laurels. Wrong! She was soon  found to be involved in  the Lambert Simnel plot,  which no doubt if successful would have resulted in the death of her daughter’s husband. Whether her daughter, Elizabeth of York, would have approved of this is a moot point and something we shall never know although surely she would hardly have welcomed being turfed off the throne and her children disinherited and my guess is that relationship between Elizabeth Snr and Jnr became rather frosty after that. Henry Tudor, who was many things but not a fool took the sensible  decision to have his mother in law ‘retired’ to Bermondsey Abbey, no doubt to protect her from herself but more importantly to protect himself from Elizabeth and her penchant for plots that mostly ended up with someone dead. And there at Bermondsey, a place known for disgraced queens to be sent to languish and die, she lived out her days no doubt closely watched, Karma having finally caught up with her.

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Terracotta bust of Henry VII. Elizabeth’s son-in-law.  Henry prudently had Elizabeth ‘retired’ to Bermondsey Abbey. 

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John Tiptoft Earl of Worcester.  Effigy on his tomb.  Tiptoft’s propensity for cruelty did not deter Edward from appointing him Lord Deputy of Ireland in 1467 nor did it dissuade Elizabeth to involve him in her plotting to bring about the death of Desmond.  

(1) Harleian Manuscript 433 Vol 2 pp108.9

(2) The Usurpation of Richard III Dominic Mancini. Ed. C A J  Armstrong.

(3 ) The Brothers York Thomas Penn p405

(4) Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey p87 John Ashdown Hill

(5) Ibid  p124 John Ashdown Hill.

(6) The Ladies of the Minories W E Hampton.  Article in The Ricardian 1978

(7) York Civic Records Vol.1.pp 73-4.  Richard of Gloucester letter to the city of York 10 June 1483.

 

 

 

 

Wells Cathedral, in glorious Medieval Technicolor…!

 

from the BBC

We’re often told that the medieval period was one of bright colours. The interiors of castles and great houses were painted with vivid scenes, and the churches and cathedrals were brilliantly decorated. It’s one thing to know this, but quite another to actually see what it might have been like. The above illustration of Wells Cathedral shows how it might have appeared prior to the 14th/15th century addition of the two West Front towers we know today and that Stillington would have seen. It really is quite incredible.

The picture below is how Turner saw the cathedral in 1795, after Monmouth’s rebels stripped it of lead for ammunition, when it was more or less as we see it now.

 

Ralph Boteler, Lord Sudeley, father-in-law to Lady Eleanor Talbot.

image.pngThe arms of Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley ..

 Take a trip to the lovely Cotswold town of Winchcombe and there you will find Sudeley Castle.  Some of those that lived in the castle are well known such as Queen Catherine Parr and the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey.  Their stories are well documented elsewhere and I won’t touch upon them here as I want to focus on an earlier owner Ralph Boteler, Lord of Sudeley who was born around 1393 and was to become father-in-law to Lady Eleanor Boteler, or Butler as she is more commonly called, nee Talbot.  Eleanor was married to Ralph’s son Thomas.

Ralph, from aristocratic stock, led an illustrious life.  He had rebuilt Sudeley after fighting in the France where its most likely he would have met John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, Eleanor’s father.  Among the titles he held were Baron Sudeley, Captain of Calais, Lord high Treasurer of England and Chamberlain of the King’s Household.  He was also a generous benefactor to St Peter’s Church, in Winchcombe, enabling it to be rebuilt in 10 years after the earlier church  fell into disrepair.

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John Talbot, lst Earl of Shrewsbury – father to Eleanor Butler nee Talbot.  Both `John and Ralph fought in France.

As Eleanor was only a child of about 13 when she married Thomas, who was a fair bit older than her at about 28, their marriage would not have been consummated immediately  and therefore she would have lived with her in-laws at Sudeley for the first few years of her marriage.  It would seem an affection grew between her and her father in law, for later, after the death of Thomas, it would appear that she either persuaded her second, and secret husband,  the young Edward IV to act generously towards her former father in law, or he did so to make his new bride happy for, within 6 months of the secret marriage, which took place around February 1461, Edward issued a grant –  ‘exemption for life of Ralph Botiller, knight, Lord of Sudeley, on account of his debility and age from personal attendance in council or Parliament and from being made collector assessor or taxer….commissioner, justice of the peace, constable, bailiff, or other minister of the king, or trier, arrayer or leader of men at arms, archers, or hobelers. And he shall not be compelled to leave his dwelling for war’.  Three months later Edward further granted ‘Ralph four bucks in summer and six in winter within the king’s park of Woodstock’ ( 1 ) Sadly all this good will evaporated on the death of Eleanor in 1468.  Historian John Ashdown-Hill has described this volte-face as a ‘hostility’ resulting in Ralph having to surrender his properties, including Sudeley, which went in the main, to the voracious relatives of his new and bigamous ‘wife’, Elizabeth Wydeville.  For following a pardon granted to Ralph on the 17 December 1468 when two properties Griff and Burton Dassett, taken earlier by Edward,  were returned to him, Ralph was ‘induced to issue the following grant:

‘Know all men present and to come that I, Ralph Boteler, Knight, Lord Sudely, have given, granted and by this my present charter have confirmed to Richard, Earl Rivers, William, Earl of Pembroke, Anthony Wydevile, Knight, Lord Scales, William Hastings, Knight, Lord Hastings, Thomas Bonyfaunt, Dean of the Chapel Royal, Thomas Vaughn, one of the Esquires of the King’s body and to Richard Fowler, the castle domain and manor of Sudeley, with all its belongings in the county of Gloucester, and all lands, rent etc., in Sudeley, Toddington, Stanley, Greet, Gretton, Catesthorp and Newnton and also the advowson of the church or chapel of Sudeley, to hold the same to them and their assignees’ ( 2)

Sadly , Edward, not content with taking Ralph’s properties he may have, according to John Ashdown-Hill also sent him to prison, where he died in 1473 (3).  People (and history)  will have to judge for themselves the true reason Edward took such a heavy hand with Ralph after Eleanor’s death and whether it was, as some say, because of his loyalty to the Lancastrian cause (having supported the redemption of Henry VI)  or did it perhaps have something more to do with Ralph being privy (or a reminder)  to the illegality of the Wydeville marriage?

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Sudeley Castle, Winchcombe, Gloucestershire.  Rebuilt by Ralph Boteler ..

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St Peter’s Church, Winchcombe.  Ralph Boteler gave generously enabling the church to be rebuilt after the original one fell into a ruinous state.

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St Mary’s Church at Sudeley Castle..

( 1 ) Elizabeth Widville, Lady Grey p38 CPR 1461-1467, pp.72,191.  John Ashdown-Hill.

( 2)  Eleanor: The Secret Queen p150.   Close Roll 8 Edward IV,  no.3. dorso, 23 February 1469.              John Ashdown-Hill.

(3)  Elizabeth Widville Lady Grey p51.  John Ashdown-Hill.

Eleanor: A reminder of the evidence

I know some people in Cairo are a little slow on the uptake, but there are several independent sources, as shown by the Revealing Richard III blog. In a recent series of articles in the Ricardian Bulletin, the team cite:

  1. Titulus Regius, as composed from the petition to the Three Estates on 26 June 1483;
  2.  Richard III’s letter to Lord Mountjoy, Captain of Calais, two days later;
  3. The Crowland Chronicle, which independently confirmed the above letter;
  4. Phillippe de Commynes‘ (above left) contemporaneous (1483) reports to Louis XI;
  5. Eustace de Chapuys‘ (below left) 1533-4 letters to Charles V, showing that Henry VIII had a lesser dynastic claim to the English throne than Catherine of Aragon, his patron’s aunt;
  6. A 1486 Year Book, detailing Henry VII’s attempts to persuade Bishop Stillington to confess so that Titulus Regius could be annulled and not just destroyed unread.
    The last three all name Stillington or refer to the “Bishop of B”, such that only Bath and Wells fits that description in England during 1483-7. Birmingham, Blackburn, Bradford and Bristol didn’t have Bishops in those days.

In fact, by building on John Ashdown-Hill’s decade of painstaking research, the Revealing Richard team even link to the text of Titulus Regius. These points don’t even mention Stillington’s imprisonment, the Desmond executions, Clarence’s imprisonment and execution, Catesby’s execution, Lady Eleanor’s land dealings and testament together with Lord Sudeley’s adverse treatment and More‘s “Lady Lucy” false trail.

Matthew Lewis on YouTube: 2) Mancini

Here is the second in my series of Top 10’s. This one is focussing on Dominic Mancini’s account of the events of 1483. It’s a hugely problematical source, both in terms of Mancini himself, who spoke no English, had no grasp of English politics and very limited sources, and in terms of the current translation in use which often chooses weighted words to make Mancini’s account darker.

It’s a negative source, without a doubt, written for a French audience hostile to England and Richard III and gripped by their own minority succession crisis, but it’s also misused and misunderstood. Mancini explains that he has had his arm twisted by Angelo Cato to write the account, which he had not wished to commit to paper. Cato worked at the French court, so had his own agenda is seeking to make Richard and his England seem like a land of murderous monsters.

More than this, Mancini admits, when complaining about being brow beaten into writing his account, that he knows almost nothing for certain. He wrote ‘I indeed decided that I ought not to expatiate so freely in writing as in talking, for, although on your account I did not shrink from pains, yet I had not sufficiently ascertained the names of those to be described, the intervals of time, and the secret designs of men in this whole affair.’ He adds ‘Wherefore you should not expect from me the names of individual men and places, nor that this account should be complete in all details; rather shall it resemble the effigy of a man, which lacks some of the limbs, and yet a beholder delineates for himself a man’s form.’

If Mancini had visited Torquay in the 1970’s, he might have given Manuel a run for his money.

Manuel

I know nothing…

Busting yet another Cairo myth

Bishop Robert Stillington was imprisoned soon after Bosworth and died in captivity in 1491, definitely by 15 May. It is generally thought that this was a punishment for providing the copious evidence that convinced the Three Estates, in June 1483, of Edward IV’s bigamy. This rendered Elizabeth of York and all her siblings legally illegitimate, which was highly inconvenient for Henry “Tudor”, who sought to marry her. Stillington’s arrest and Catesby‘s summary execution fall into the first four days of Henry VII’s actual reign and the first five of the reign he claimed.

There has been an alternative view, based on the writings of Edward Hall, compiled after More but before Shakespeare. In 1475-6, just after the planned invasion of France was cancelled, an embassy was sent to Francis, Duke of Brittany, seeking to capture “Tudor”. Both Vergil and Hall comment that “the Bishop of Bath and Wells” was part of the party in question. Several Cairo dwellers rely on that interpretation, identifying Stillington as the man in question.

Oliver King the snooker player. For some reason, we couldn’t find a photo of the Bishop.

In 1475-6, Robert Stillington was indeed Bishop of Bath and Wells but there are several convincing reasons to conclude that he wasn’t the man in question. By the time Polydore Vergil put quill to paper, Oliver King (1495-1503) occupied that see and Hall “redialled” to King’s predecessor but one for convenience. King was among those arrested but released at the time of Hastings’ plot.

Secondly, Stillington was not a well man by the time Edward IV’s second reign began, taking leave of absence as Lord Privy Seal and Lord Chancellor at least twice, and the Foedera evidence shows that he was never actually sent abroad. In the ODNB, based on the Yorkshireman’s early academic career, Hicks concludes that he was born by 1410 and ordained at a comparatively late age, living into his eighties. Based on this revelation, it is possible that his own children were actually legitimate and that their mother died before he took holy orders in c.1447.

Now think about the implications of this. Canon Stillington, who almost certainly witnessed Edward IV’s real marriage, was more than thirty years older than his monarch. Ralph Butler, Lord Sudeley, a probable witness born in about 1394, was nearly fifty years older than Edward, imprisoned from 1469-73 when he died, and Lady Eleanor herself was over six years older. In other words, Edward IV need only to have lived to 49 to ensure that all those with first-hand knowledge were dead, so the ceremony would have been deniable. He didn’t, of course, thereby ending Yorkist rule.

h/t Marie Barnfield

The Trial That Should Have Happened in 1483

RICARDIAN LOONS

Putting aside the mystery of what ultimately happened to Edward IV’s two sons, one enduring difficulty for a student of history is whether Richard III used the proper legal procedure in having them declared illegitimate because of their father’s precontracted marriage to Eleanor Talbot.  The most (and only) significant defect appears to be the failure to refer the issue to a church court for determination.[1]  But it seems no one has fleshed out how an ecclesiastical tribunal would have litigated such an extraordinary and unprecedented matter, let alone identified which church court would have had authority to hear it.

As a retired litigator of 20 years, I undertook the challenge of researching medieval English church court procedures and precedent cases to answer four questions: Which church court would have decided the precontract issue? How would it have conducted the litigation? What evidence would it have heard? How conclusive would…

View original post 5,008 more words

Bishop Stillington’s Lost Chapel

The beautiful Cathedral of Wells  is a medieval visual delight. It was, of course, the See of Bishop Robert Stillington who sought out Richard Duke of Gloucester and announced that King Edward IV had been secretly married to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, prior to wedding  Elizabeth Woodville in a second secret ceremony, thus making his second marriage bigamous and invalid. He knew the matter was true, he said, because he was the one who had officiated at the marriage of Edward and Eleanor..

Stillington was Archdeacon of Taunton when Edward might have met and married Eleanor Talbot, probably around 1461. He was, of course, not then a Bishop but the Canon Stillington. He also served in Edward’s government as Keeper of the Privy seal. He was elected to his Bishopric in 1465–at King Edward’s insistence, as the the Pope initially proposed a different candidate. He was also intermittently Lord Chancellor, though he appears to have been dismissed in 1473. A few years later, Stillington was briefly imprisoned for unspecified offences which seem to have been connected with George of Clarence’s treason charges.

After Richard III’s death at Bosworth, Henry VII immediately ordered Stillington imprisoned . Upon his release, rather than retiring somewhere far from court or bowing to the new Tudor regime, he immediately involved himself in the Lambert Simnel uprising. Once Stoke Field was fought and Tudor victorious , Stillington fled to Oxford, where for a while the University protected him. However, eventually he was captured and thrown in prison in Windsor Castle–this time for the rest of his days. He died in 1491 and was taken to Somerset for burial at Wells Cathedral.

During his lifetime, Stillington did not spend much time in Wells but he did complete building work within the cathedral and raised his own mortuary chapel there in the 1470’s, complete with huge gilded bosses bosses of suns and roses. This chapel, dedicated to the Virgin, was built on one side of the cloisters near the holy springs that give Wells its name and on  the foundations of an earlier Saxon church. During the Reformation, in the reign of Edward VI, Sir John Gates destroyed the chapel and tomb and, according to old accounts,ripped the Bishop’s remains out of his lead coffin.

Rather interestingly, Stillington’s Chapel is the ONLY part of Wells Cathedral that was severely damaged during the Reformation, the Bishop’s tomb not only being desecrated but the building itself razed to the ground – and some would have it that there’s no such thing as Tudor propaganda? Of course, the roof was later pillaged by Monmouth’s rebels to make ammunition for use at Sedgemoor.

The foundations of Stillington’s chapel have been excavated, and if you visit Wells Cathedral today, you can see scant stonework sticking out of the ground in Camery Gardens. Nearby, in the cloisters, several massive chunks of his tomb canopy are on display, decorated with symbols of the House of York.

 

Talbot Country

There is a pub in Bridgnorth, near where I live. Well, let’s be honest, there’s about a hundred. If you have ever been to Bridgnorth, aside from the Severn Valley Railway, the funicular railway from Low Town to High Town and the remains of the slighted castle, which lean at a greater angle than the Tower of Pisa, the sheer number of pubs will strike you. The one I was referring to is The Bell and Talbot on Salop Street in High Town. The hanging sign shows a dog lying beneath a bell while the one on the wall looks a bit more like a coat of arms, with two hounds rearing up either side of a bell.

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The Bell and Talbot, Bridgnorth

The symbol of the Talbot Hound is easy to miss but is significant in Shropshire. Talbot dogs were small white hunting hounds, extinct now, but understood to be an ancestor of the beagle and the bloodhound. The origin of the breed, its emergence in England and the reason for the name are all lost in the mists of time, but they have an enduring connection to the most prominent Shropshire family of the last five centuries.

Henry VI is believed to have referred to John Talbot in 1449 as ‘Talbott, oure good dogge’: I’m sure he meant it as a compliment, but I wouldn’t appreciate such a label! Did the name of the hound emerge from this quip? Or was it a reference to the already-established Talbot breed, coincidentally sharing a name with Henry’s premier general in France? John Talbot became Earl of Shrewsbury and his family inextricably linked with the title and surrounding county for generations. The 1445 Shrewsbury Book, commissioned by Talbot, has an image of the earl presenting his book to Margaret of Anjou, Henry’s queen, with a little white Talbot hound standing behind him.

shrewsbury_book_f.2_(talbot-dog)

The Shrewsbury Book, presented by John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury

In 1569, George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury was one of the few English noblemen wealthy and trusted enough to house Mary, Queen of Scots during her period under house arrest at Elizabeth I’s instruction. Shrewsbury was a prominent Protestant and Elizabeth made him a Privy Counsellor as part of the arrangement because of ‘his approved loyalty and faithfulness, and the ancient state of blood from which he is descended’. Mary was initially held at Tutbury Castle and although Elizabeth would not meet the costs of her prisoner’s keeping, Mary’s French incomes covered her hosts expenses for a while. She was moved two months later to Wingfield Manor, a more suitable, well-kept lodging than the dilapidated Tutbury with its inadequate drains. Although he would discharge his duty diligently, Shrewsbury was censured any time he left Mary’s company for his own business and despite his wealth, he and his wife, Bess of Hardwick found themselves financially embarrassed by the cost and Elizabeth’s refusal to help meet them. Mary was eventually removed from Shrewsbury’s care before her eventual entrapment and execution at Fotheringhay Castle.

Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots

Alton Towers lies just north of Shropshire, across the border into Staffordshire, and even as a theme park, it retains a link to the Talbot family who made it their ancestral home. The buildings that lie ruined today were built by Charles Talbot, 15th Earl of Shrewsbury in the early nineteenth century. The ride Hex is contained within the ruins and tells the story of that earl’s battle with the supernatural to lift a curse placed in him and his family.

For anyone interested in the fifteenth century, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, remembered as Old Talbot, is a towering figure sadly eclipsed by later events. He was one of the few Englishmen Joan of Arc is reputed to have known by name. His fearless, often reckless leadership made him the most successful English general in France over many years. He was probably in his mid-sixties when he was eventually killed at the Battle of Castillon in 1453. His loss was such a blow that Castillon is considered the last battle of the Hundred Years War and there is a memorial in France to him, set up where he fell in recognition of a foe worthy of respect.

talbotmonumentcastillon

The Talbot Monument at the site of the Battle of Castillon

For those with an interest more precisely focussed on Richard III and the events of 1483, the Talbot family have a vitally important role to play. Unfortunately, there is little solid fact on which to hang any opinion of the controversy of Edward IV’s marital status. Where hard, written evidence is lacking – and we should expect it to be lacking, given the systematic destruction of Titulus Regius after Bosworth – I tend to fall back on the actions of people affected by events. In their reaction, or even inaction, we can often glean an idea of what must have been going on and what people thought of it.

The Talbot family come into sharp focus because the basis of Richard’s charge that Edward IV’s children were illegitimate is a claim that Edward was a bigamist. It was alleged that prior to his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, he had already contracted a marriage to Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. We have no solid evidence that this is the case, but as I said, we probably shouldn’t expect to. Look at what people in London in June 1483 did, though. They accepted the evidence we are told they were shown. We cannot examine it and for the most part, historians dismiss it as fantasy. Yet those who could read it accepted it so completely that they deposed a king and offered the crown to his uncle. Why would they do that? Fear of Richard? Hardly. He had no army in London or anywhere nearby. He was mustering a few hundred men at Pontefract, but they had not left by then and London was well versed in resisting thousands, never mind a few hundred. Fear of a minority? Maybe, but Richard had shown himself willing to act as regent for his nephew, and he was the senior royal male of the House of York, an experienced governor and successful general (within his limited opportunities). Could it be that, just maybe, the allegations looked true?

Edward IV’s reputation, deserved or otherwise, surely made it seem plausible. None would doubt that he was capable of contracting a secret marriage to a relatively unsuitable older lady. That was, after all, how he ended up married to Elizabeth Woodville. By 1483, George Talbot was 4th Earl of Shrewsbury, the first earl’s great-grandson. He was probably too young to fight at Bosworth, but definitely supported Henry VII during the Lambert Simnel Affair. The Talbot family were Lancastrian in their sympathies; after all, their patriarch had built his reputation and title on defending that House. They are often considered hostile to Richard III, probably because of his accusation against one of their number, but I’m not sure that was the case. By the time of the Lambert Simnel Affair, supporting Henry VII was the natural position for the 4th Earl. Besides, if, as I strongly suspect, the Affair was an uprising in favour of Edward V rather than Edward, Earl of Warwick, then the Talbot family perhaps opposed it because they were perfectly well aware of Edward V’s illegitimacy.

Back in 1483, the Talbot family made no move against Richard or his accusation about Eleanor Talbot and Edward IV. When Simon Stallworth wrote his newsletter to Sir William Stonor as late as 21 June 1483, the day before Dr Shaa’s sermon at St Paul’s Cross, he knew nothing of the impending bombshell. He did, however, note that Lord Lisle ‘is come to my Lorde Protectour and awates apone hym’. This is more significant that it is often deemed to be.

Lord Lisle was Edward Grey. He was not only the younger brother of Sir John Grey of Groby, the first husband of Elizabeth Woodville and therefore uncle to her two oldest sons, but he was also married to Elizabeth Talbot, a niece of Eleanor Talbot. If Richard was looking for evidence to substantiate or refute the charge he had been made aware of, Lord Lisle was a sensible person to consult. He might know whether there was any family tradition that Eleanor had married Edward and whether any evidence remained in Talbot hands.

Lord Lisle was from a Lancastrian family and Richard was about to offend the family of his wife, yet Lord Lisle remained with Richard and offered no opposition. Indeed, Lord Lisle attended Richard’s coronation, as did the Duchess of Norfolk, Elizabeth. Elizabeth had married John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk and was the mother of Anne Mowbray, the ill-fated bride of Edward IV’s younger son. She had been born Elizabeth Talbot, though, the youngest daughter of John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury and a sister of Eleanor Talbot. She was not so outraged by Richard’s accusations that she boycotted his coronation. Was this because Richard was, in actual fact, righting a wrong that the Talbot family perceived had been inflicted on one of their number by a deceitful young king?

There are many other elements to the precontract story. The timing is always cited as too convenient, but I would counter that George, Duke of Clarence seems to have been on the verge of revealing it in 1477 and it cost him his life. Who else would have been brave enough to trumpet the allegation during Edward IV’s lifetime? It would have been tantamount to signing your own death warrant. This piece of the puzzle is interesting though. We cannot be certain of the truth of the allegation of bigamy. We can, however, be entirely certain that the charge was made, that evidence was gathered (or fabricated), that what evidence existed was unanimously accepted by those able to examine it, that this evidence has subsequently been lost or destroyed and that there was no backlash from the Talbot family in 1483 (accepting that in 1485 Sir Gilbert Talbot, younger son of the 2nd Earl, joined Henry Tudor’s army).

It amazes me that such certainty in the fraud of the bigamy allegation is espoused today. There is no hard evidence for it, but there is also none against it. Expanding our consideration to more circumstantial elements, it is probable that the story nearly emerged in 1477, costing George his life, and it is certain that those who were exposed to the evidence in support of it entirely accepted it. It may have been a well-constructed lie, but it is at least as likely, if not more so, that it was true.

The King’s bishop? What did John Russell know in 1483?

 

“ ‘Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?’

‘To the curious incident of the dog in the night time’

‘The dog did nothing in the night time’

‘That is the curious incident ‘ remarked Sherlock Holmes.”[1]

 

By applying his reasoning to this simple observation, the world’s foremost consulting detective was able to solve the mysterious disappearance of Silver Blaze and identify John Straker’s killer. Holmes’ recognized that the key to solving the case was to understand why the guard dog did not bark during the theft of Colonel Ross’ prize racehorse. It is a useful reminder for me that the key to a mystery often lies in understanding the patterns of behaviour of those involved: their actions and their inaction. The late Dr Pamela Tudor-Craig adopted a similar approach to the central mystery of King Richard’s life and reign: the disappearance of the Princess in the Tower. In a short essay entitled ‘People About Richard III’, she highlights Richard’s relationship with those bishops who accepted his patronage and invites the question, which is not altogether rhetorical, why did these holy men accept preferment at Richard’s hand if he was the monster of Tudor tradition? [2]

 

These bishops will be familiar names to students of the Wars of the Roses and especially to Ricardians: John Russell Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Stillington Bishop of Bath and Wells, Thomas Langton Bishop of St David’s and later of Salisbury and John Shirwood Bishop of Durham. All these clerics served previously under Lancastrian and Yorkist kings; none could be described as Richard’s friend, and all were men of great learning and piety. Russell was the Lord Chancellor from 1483 until 1485; Stillington was, for a time, Lord Chancellor to Edward IV. It was Stillington who is purported to have reported Edward IV’s earlier marriage to Eleanor Talbot (the ‘pre-contract’). Shirwood owed his bishopric to Richard’s preferment. He was an early English humanist, an avid collector of classic Greek and Roman literature and a protégé of George Neville. During Edward IV’s reign his loyalty was suspect.[3] King Richard, who thought better of him, appointed Shirwood as envoy to the Vatican. Bishop Langton was also appointed at Richard’s behest.[4] He was a borderer and accompanied Richard in his first royal progress, writing approvingly of him to the prior of Christ Church Canterbury.[5] After Bosworth, Stillington was arrested for his part in Richard’s accession and then pardoned. Russell and Shirwood, however, continued in royal service; Russell, as a diplomat and Shirwood as envoy to the Vatican. Langton actually flourished under the first Tudor king, reaching the dizzy height of archbishop elect of Canterbury shortly before his death in 1500. Yet none of these men denounced Richard as a regicide or said anything about the disappearance of Edward IV’s sons, not even when it was a safe to accuse him of practically anything. Given the antipathy in the Tudor narrative towards the last Plantagenet, their silence is curious feature of the most famous of all English historical mysteries.

 

It is, of course, a moot point whether the bishops actually knew anything about what was happening to Edward’s sons in 1483. With the exception of Russell, none of them were at the centre of Richard’s government. Dr Tudor-Craig points to the chance that they might have known what was happening through a possible friendship between Shirwood and Dr John Argentine. It remains, however, no more than a possibility. The only known copy of Shirwood’s ‘Mathematical Game’ (no.106) is of particular relevance to this exhibition since it belonged to John Argentine, Edward V’s physician who gave such a foreboding report of his charge to Mancini.[6] Argentine may well have been an Italian and he was an industrious collector of books. The strong possibility that he knew Shirwood during the summer of 1483 in London reduces the likelihood that these distinguished prelates could have accepted patronage at Richard III’s hand in ignorance of the true state of affairs. Either Argentine’s words as reported by Mancini were not meant to carry a sinister gloss, or the clerics had accommodating consciences.[7]

 

Be that as it may, there was certainly one among them who was well placed to know the truth. It is likely that John Russell the Lord Chancellor was privy to Richard’s intention towards his nephews. Judging from the surviving signet and Chancery letters, their working relationship was close. Richard trusted Russell to deal with secret/confidential matters of great delicacy and moment, even those that occurred during his royal progress. Such trust is all the more remarkable since it appears that Russell was not, as some suppose, a trimmer or tame Ricardian but an outspoken critic of the petition presented to Parliament in 1484 setting out Richard’s royal title and also of Titulus Regius in the form it was enacted, and indeed, of the turbulence leading to Richard’s accession. It is not my intention to go into that issue now, since it is beyond my scope. I will confine myself to exploring Russell’s relationship with his king through three surviving letters from their correspondence. Obviously, the subject and the content of each letter is important because they each touch on events taking place between summer and autumn 1483, which is the critical period for analysing the disappearance of the two princes. All the same, they cannot be considered in a vacuum that ignores Russell’s constitutional position as Lord Chancellor and the evolving realpolitik of the times.

 

The Lord Chancellor

Professor Charles Ross describes the office of Lord Chancellor as ‘the most responsible clerical office in the gift of the crown’.[8] His use of the adjective ‘clerical’ perhaps betrays his ignorance of its several meanings (‘learned pertaining to the clergy, or clerk pertaining to copying and general office work’[9]) but more likely it reveals his unawareness of the constitutional importance of the Lord Chancellor. It was then, and remains, one of the great offices of state. Although Russell was indeed a cleric, his responsibilities were secular and serious; any implication that he was a glorified chief clerk is ludicrous. In the fifteenth century the Lord Chancellor was the nearest equivalent of a modern Prime Minister. He was a key official in the Royal Household the king’s principal advisor, and his formal link with parliament, and the machinery of government at Westminster. It was the Lord Chancellor who delivered the official sermon at the opening of parliament setting out the reason for its summons and the king’s plans. In addition, he had a judicial responsibility as the king’s liaison with the judiciary and presiding judge in the Chancery Court of England. It is true that Russell was a bureaucrat and not a politician; however, as an experienced, and talented administrator and lawyer he was eminently suitable for this office. His appointment had the unqualified approval of Sir Thomas More, probably the most famous Lord Chancellor of all, who described Russell as ‘ a wise man of much experience and one of the most learned men England had at this time’.[10] Dominic Mancini writing at the end of 1483 concurred with More’s opinion; he described Russell as a man of ‘great learning and piety.’[11]

 

‘The Chancellor is desperate and not content’

I need not describe the course of events between Edward IV’s untimely death in April 1483 and the bastardization of his heirs in June, since they are well known and, in any case, do not add to the substance of my argument. What matters from my perspective is Russell’s reaction to those events. For my purposes the narrative begins after lunch on Friday the 13 June 1483. William Lord Hastings had just been summarily executed on a convenient log for (it is alleged) plotting to kill the Lord Protector and Henry Stafford Duke of Buckingham, his henchman. The Archbishop of York (Thomas Rotherham), the Bishop Ely (John Morton) and assorted others have also been arrested. And there is panic on the streets of London. On the Monday following, the Queen was persuaded to allow her youngest son Richard the duke of York, the heir presumptive, to leave the sanctuary of Westminster Abbey to attend his brother’s coronation. That afternoon in council the coronation was postponed. The alarm of Londoners following these events is tangible and it seems from the evidence of two independent sources that the Chancellor John Russell was also deeply troubled by the turn of events.

 

The first source is an undated memorandum written by George Cely, an English wool merchant, which must have been written between the 13th and 25th of June 1483. It contains the key description of Russell’s mood: ‘There is great rumour in the realm. The Scots have done great [harm] in England, the Chamberlain is deceased in trouble, the Chancellor is desperate and not content, [my emphasis] the bishop of Ely is dead, if the king, God save his life were deceased, the duke of Gloucester were in any peril, if my lord prince, whom God defend were troubled, if my lord of Northumberland were dead or greatly troubled, if my Lord Howard were slain.[12]

 

The other account is a letter written by Simon Stallworth (one of Russell’s secretaries) on the 21 June 1483 to Sir William Stonor. It is worth quoting in full. ‘Worshipful sir I commend me to you and for tidings I hold you happy that you are out of the press, for with us is much trouble and every man doubts [the] other. As on Friday last was the Chamberlain [Hastings] beheaded soon upon noon. On Monday last was at Westminster a great plenty of harnessed men, there was the deliverance of the Duke of York to my lord Cardinal, my Lord Chancellor and many other lords temporal and with him met my lord of Buckingham in the midst of the hall at Westminster…It is thought there shall be 20 thousand men of  my Lord Protector and my lord Buckingham’s men in London this week to which intent I know not but to keep the peace. My lord [Russell] has much            business and more than he is content with, if any other way would be taken [my emphasis]. The lord archbishop of York and the bishop of Ely are at the Tower with master Oliver King (I suppose they shall come out nevertheless). There are men in their places for safekeeping [guards?] And suppose that there shall be men of my Lord Protectors sent to his lordship’s place in the country. They are not  like to come out of ward yet. As for Forster he is in hold for his mew for (to plead for?) his life. Mistress Shore is in prison. What shall happen here I know not. I pray you pardon me from writing I am so sick I may not well hold my pen…All the Lord Chamberlain’s men become my lord of Buckingham’s men.’ [13]

 

These strictly contemporary accounts do not support the conclusion that Gloucester’s actions marked the opening moves of usurpation. Even less do they justify Dr Alison Hanham’s (surprisingly defensive) proposition that ‘even the most committed Ricardian must agree that it was a time of alarms and uncertainties when the suspicions of Richard’s intentions previously disseminated by the Woodvilles must he seemed to many to receive confirmation.[14] The implication that Londoners feared Gloucester’s actions were the prelude to a coup d’état and the insinuation that Russell shared their anxiety is simply not true.[15] There is no doubt that there was a great commotion in the capital over the weekend of the 14 and 15 of June and in the week that followed, with armed gangs on the street. However, Londoners in general did not see the threat as coming from Gloucester but from Woodville inspired conspirators. The Cely memorandum is explicit on this point. And there is nothing in Stallworth’s letter to gainsay the view that the public feared the ambition of the Queen and her Woodville kin whom they blamed for the unrest. Professor Michael Hicks — a renowned anti-Ricardian — also believes that the citizens did not at this time fear Gloucester’s motive; indeed, they supported his actions against the conspirators. Hicks rejects Mancini and the other vernacular chronicle accounts as hindsight, preferring to rely on the events that followed as a better guide to public opinion of Richard in May and June.[16] It would seem that despite Professor Ross’ assertion that we only have Gloucester’s word for the Hastings conspiracy, people believed that he and the king were threatened in June 1483.

 

Russell was not a neutral observer of these events, he participated in them; to that extent he was partisan. He neither liked nor trusted the Woodvilles. He believed that if they were allowed to control the king it would result in civil war and disorder. Russell craved unity not division. All of this is clear from the sermon he drafted for Edward V’s abortive first parliament, in which he set out the Council’s plans for minority governance after Edward’s coronation. It was intended to continue the protectorship after the king’s coronation and exceptionally to invest Gloucester with regency powers. This would of course have been in accordance with the earlier view of the ‘more foresighted’ councillors that the King’s maternal uncles and stepbrothers should be ‘absolutely forbidden’ from having control of the monarch before he reached his majority.[17] It would seem from Russell’s extant draft that having examined the Woodvilles suitability for government he found them wanting.[18] He writes, for example, ‘Then if there be any certainty or firmness in this world, such as may be found in Heaven, it is rather in the islands and lands environed with water than in the sea or any great rivers (an allusion to Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers)’. Further on we have this: ‘And therefore the noble persons of the world, which some for the merits of their ancestors, some for their own virtues being endowed with great honours and possessions, and riches may be conveniently resembled unto the firm ground that men see in Islands (an allusion to Gloucester and to England) than the lower people, which for the lack of such endowments, not possible to be shared among so many and therefore living by their casual labours be not without cause [compared] to the unstable and wavering running water: aque multe populus multus (a lot of water, a lot of people)’. Towards the conclusion, he extols the Lord Protector’s virtues; ‘…The necessary charges which in the kings tender age must needs be borne and supported by the right noble and famous prince the duke of Gloucester his uncle, protector of this realm. In whose great puissance, wisdom and fortunes rests at this season the execution of the defence of the realm as well against open enemies as against subtle and faint friends of the same.’ However, this sermon was never delivered due to the dramatic events that occurred between the 22 and 26 June. On Sunday the 22 June, Edward IV’s heirs were denounced as bastards. Three days later, Gloucester was offered the throne. The next day he was king. I now turn to the relevant correspondence.

 

A warrant to arrest persons unknown dated 29 July 1483

King Richard was crowned on the 6 July and left for his first royal progress on the 18 July. He dictated this intriguing letter, whilst sojourning for two or three days with his friend Francis Lovell: ‘ By the King RR. Right reverend father in God right trusty and wellbeloved; we greet you well. Whereas we understand that certain persons had of late taken upon themselves an enterprise — as we doubt not you have heard — and are in custody, we desire and will that you take our letters of commission to such persons as you and our council shall be advised, for to sit [in judgement] upon them and to proceed to the due execution of out laws on  that behalf. Fail not hereof as our perfect trust is in you. Given under our signet at the manor of Minster Lovell the 29 July.’

 

This is not a routine letter. Judging by the last sentence, Richard is responding to what he believes is an emergency at Westminster. He does not name the conspirators or the nature of their offence because he assumes Russell knows what he means. The implication being, of course, that this matter was secret and the detail could not be committed to paper. It is for that reason that historical interest in the letter has largely concentrated on the search for answers to the inevitable ‘who’ ‘what’ and ‘why’ questions that arise. Important though those questions are, I need not answer them here, since others have already done so.[19] It is useful, nonetheless, to outline the options considered.

 

Dr Tudor-Craig submits several possible motives for the letter. First, it might have related to an attempt to remove Edward’s daughters from sanctuary and take them overseas out of Richard’s reach. The Crowland Chronicle reports the rumour of such a plot, which caused the King to strengthen security around Westminster Abbey ‘so that the whole neighbourhood took on the appearance of a castle or fortress’. John Nesfield, who was captain in charge of the operation, ensured that no one could get in or out without his permission.[20] Dr Tudor-Craig rejects that possibility, however, on the ground that ‘The tenor of the letter suggests that the criminals had accomplished their deed, even though they had been caught, and yet the princesses remained in sanctuary’.[21] Alison Hanham challenges that proposition; she argues that they were arrested before the fact and not afterwards. Her point being that the word ‘had’ (as opposed to ‘have’) suggests that the plot had not come to fruition.[22] If one accepts Dr Hanham’s construction of the letter it would seem reasonable to suppose that the plot to send the princesses overseas remains a possibility. However, such a plot hardly warrants a surreptitious letter of this kind since according to Crowland it was almost certainly common knowledge in London anyway. A similar point could be made in relation to Dr Tudor-Craig’s second possibility: that it concerned mistress ‘Jane’ Shore. I think we can safely dismiss this on the ground that there was nothing secret about her activities.

 

Dr Tudor Craig’s third and final possibility is that it relates to the disappearance of the two princes. Unfortunately, she does not look beyond the possibility that they were murdered. Such a plot would certainly require secrecy. The problem with this, however, is that Richard’s instructions to Russell to discuss the matter with the council and proceed according to the law are incompatible with secrecy. Dr Tudor-Craig recognized this problem but is nonetheless unable to disregard Thomas More’s assertion that the murder of the princes was ordered when Richard was at Gloucester, which he must have reached soon after this letter was written. Dr Tudor-Craig also sees significance in the parting of the ways between the King and Buckingham, which also occurred around this time and which she suggests might have been the result of a policy disagreement about what to do with ‘the certain persons who had taken upon themselves the fact of an enterprise’.[23] If her hypothesis is right it certainly adds credence to More’s account and also to the fears expressed for Edward V’s life reported to Mancini before he returned to France.[24]

 

Another possibility is that the letter referred to a plot to remove the boys from the Tower and to restore Edward V to the throne. The Crowland chronicler mentions such a plot, though his timing is problematic.[25] We also have a reference in John Stow’s ‘Annals’ of some such plot involving members of Edward IV’s former household with Woodville support.[26] ‘After this were taken for rebel against the king, Robert Russe sergeant of London, William Davy pardoner of Hounslow, John Smith groom of King Edward’s stirrup, and Stephen Ireland wardrober of the Tower, with many others, that they should have sent writings into the parts of Brittany to the earls of Richmond and of Pembroke and other lords; and how they were purposed to have set fire to divers parts of London, which fire whilst men had been staunching, they would have stolen out of the Tower the Prince Edward and his brother the Duke of York.’ [27]

 

Speculation that Lady Margaret Beaufort was involved in this conspiracy as the Woodville’s price for restoring Henry Tudor to his English dignitaries, is rejected by Professor Hicks on the ground that the link between the Beauforts, ‘the fact of a certain enterprise’ mentioned in the letter and the trial mentioned in Stowe is too tenuous to accept as evidence of the fact.[28] Certainly corresponding with Richmond was not per se treasonable (at this stage) and it seems from Hicks’ researches that there is no record of a commission of oyer & terminer or a trial, or even an indictment against these men. He postulates that although such a plot probably existed at this time, we do not have details of it.

 

Fortunately, I need not choose between these theories, since I am only concerned with Russell’s state of knowledge. Ironically, if the letter does relate to the boys’ murders, its tone and content tend to absolve the King from complicity. His instruction to bring the matter before the council and to judgement according to the law is only explicable on the basis that he was innocent and had nothing to hide or fear from a public airing of the facts. In that eventuality, Richard’s guilty secret would not be secret for very long. Alternatively, if the letter refers to a plot to remove the princes from the Tower, then it can be seen as a standard response to a treasonous threat to the crown. Of course, if such a plot existed, it confounds the contemporary suspicion that Edward V was dead before Mancini left England and demolishes More’s account of events. Either way, this letter raises some important questions about the state of Chancellor Russell knowledge, since he can hardly have been ignorant of the true state of affairs concerning the well-being or the fates of Edward IV’s sons in July. It also raises the questions of why Russell appears not to have been interrogated by the Tudor regime as to his knowledge of the fate of the princes or why there is no contemporary English accusation against King Richard.

 

 

Undated letter concerning the marriage of Thomas Lynom and Mistress Shore

I am referring to this this letter for two reasons; first, it gives us a brief but revealing ‘flash’ of Richard’s character and second, it gives rise to an equally illuminating difference of opinion between two of Richard’s many biographers; a difference of opinion, which, I might add, exhibits all the emotional prejudice that afflicts so much of Ricardian literature.

 

Thomas Lynom was King Richard’s solicitor; he sought permission to marry Mistress Jane Shore, who was languishing in Ludgate Prison for her part in the Hastings’ conspiracy. Richard’s moral rectitude caused him to take a hard line with Mistress Shore. She had, after all, plotted against him and she was a notorious harlot. Although it would have been easy for him to forbid the match in what he believed to be Lynom’s best interests, he wrote this letter instead.[29]…it is showed unto us that our servant and solicitor, Thomas Lynom is marvellously blinded and abused with the late wife of William Shore now being at Ludgate by our commandment, [and] hath made contract of matrimony with her, as it is said; and intends, to our full great marvel, to proceed to effect the same. We, for many causes, would be very sorry he should be so disposed and pray you therefore to send for him, in that you   may goodly may exhort and stir him to the contrary. And if you find him utter set for to marry her and none otherwise would be advertised, then if it may stand with the law of the church, we be content (the time of marriage being deferred to our coming next to London) that upon sufficient surety being found for her good behaviour, you send for her keeper and discharge him of our commandment by warrant of these; committing [her] to the rule of her father or any other by your discretion in the mean season.’

 

In his generally sympathetic biography of Richard III, Professor Paul Kendall uses this letter to illustrate Richard’s empathy with his fellows: ‘The harmony he never achieved within himself he did not cease to desire for others.[30] Richard’s use of vibrant phrases such as ‘marvellously blinded and abused’, and ‘to our full great marvel’ are testament to his astonishment and not his admonishment that his sober and correct solicitor should fall for the charms of the (no doubt) enchanting but wayward Jane Shore.

 

Professor Charles Ross in his less charitable biography of Richard III, uses the same letter to illustrate what he regards as the King’s bad character. Richard was, asserts Ross, the first English king to use character assassination as a deliberate instrument of policy. Richard’s ‘…public persecution of the delectable Mistress Shore has all the hallmarks of an attempt to make political capital by smearing the moral reputation of those who opposed him.’ Furthermore, he suggests that the ‘demure’ (his word) Mistress Shore would have been left to rot in Ludgate were it not for the fact that Richard’s solicitor wanted to marry her; a request which says Ross ‘obviously incurred Richard’s displeasure’. [31]

 

It is difficult to explain two such conflicting interpretations of the same letter. Ross represents the modern school of traditionalist historians who resist revisionist re-interpretations of Richard’s character. It seems obvious to me that he is entranced by the ‘delectable’ Mistress Shore whose virtues he extols at Richard’s expense. Professor Kendall writes more benevolently of Richard’s behaviour; though he has an occasional tendency to make excuses for him. His biography is now considered out of date by the academic establishment; nonetheless, it remains for me the most balanced and well-written account of King Richard’s life and reign yet published. Its strength is Kendall’s systematic use of BL Harleian Manuscript 433 to explain the events of 1483-85.[32]

 

Furthermore, professor Ross’ conclusion is based on a partial quote from the letter, starting at its beginning and ending with Richard’s comment ‘we, for many causes, would be very sorry he should be so disposed.’ This gives the false impression that King Richard was minded to prohibit the marriage because of his displeasure with Lynom and his vindictiveness towards Mistress Shore. Thus, Ross uses the letter as an example of Richard’s vindictive character. However, if one reads the whole letter, the absurdity of his argument becomes apparent. Indeed, there is nothing in the letter — even Ross’ edited version — that justifies his adverse characterization of Richard: quite the opposite in fact.

 

The letter is remarkable for its informality, Richard’s colourful language and his lightness of touch in dealing with the situation. He comes across as a concerned friend rather than an angry monarch. He has every reason to prohibit this marriage but his desire to do the right thing outweighs any animus he feels towards Mistress Shore. For Richard ‘doing the right thing’ means trying to save Thomas Lynom from his folly, which is why he asks Russell to urge him in a ‘goodly’ manner to think again. But if Lynom is ‘utter set to marry her and not otherwise’, then Richard consented. The letter is not indicative of a cruel or vindictive man. Its relaxed tone suggests that the king trusted his Chancellor and that they had a good rapport. After taking these factors into account, I prefer Kendall’s interpretation of the letter.

 

Letter dated the 12 October from King Richard to John Russell

Richard dictated this letter at Lincoln during his royal progress. It is considered to be one of the chief documents of his reign and contains a rare example of his handwriting: ‘By the King. Right reverend Father in God, right trusty and wellbeloved. We greet you          well. And in out heartfelt way thank you for the manifest presents that your servants on your behalf has presented to us here, which we assure you we took and accepted with a good heart and soul we have cause. And whereas we by Gods grace intend briefly [soon] to advance us towards our rebel and traitor the Duke of Buckingham to resist and withstand his malicious purpose as lately by our other letters we certified to you our mind   more at large. For which cause it behoves us to have our Great Seal here. We being informed that for such infirmities and disease you sustain you cannot conveniently come unto us in person with the same. Wherefore we desire and nonetheless charge you that forthwith upon the sight of these you safely do the same our Great Seal sent unto us and [by] such of the officers of our Chancery as by your wisdom shall be thought necessary. Receiving this our letter for your sufficient discharge in that behalf.  Given under our signet at our City of Lincoln the 12 day of October.   We would be most glad that you came yourself if that you may and if you may not we pray you not to fail but to accomplish in all diligence our said commandment to send our seal in contentment upon the sight hereof as we trust you with such as you trust the officers ‘pertenyng’ to attend with it praying you to ascertain us of your news here. Here loved be God is all well and truly determined and for to resist the malice of him that has best cause to be true the Duke of Buckingham the most untrue creature living whom with God’s grace we shall not be long till that we shall be in those parts and subdue his malice. We assure you that there was never false traitor better purveyed as this bearer Gloucester shall show you.”[33]

 

It is obvious that Richard and Russell were in touch and that Russell was aware of the King’s plans. Since Russell cannot bring the Great Seal himself owing to his illness, Richard added a postscript in his own hand (my emphasis above). It is one of the most revealing documents of Buckingham’s rebellion.

 

Dr Louise Gill considers that Richard’s request was unusual ‘since it put full control of the government in his hands‘ and implies that he no longer trusted his Chancellor.[34] Personally, I think Dr Gill’s appraisal of the situation is mistaken for two reasons: in the first place it is not supported by the facts and in the second place it offends against common sense. It was not in fact unusual for the Great Seal to be commandeered in times of crisis. Richard and the Council had done so in April/May 1483 after the then Chancellor, Thomas Rotherham archbishop of York, had improperly handed it to Elizabeth Woodville following the arrests of Earl Rivers and others. Richard was to call for it again in July 1485 when he was threatened by Henry Tudor’s invasion. The Great Seal was an instrument of strategic importance, to the king since it authenticated royal commands, documents and proclamations. Its close control was desirable at all times but absolutely essential when, as here, rebels aimed at deposing the king. If the king was at Westminster there was no problem, but King Richard was 150 miles from Westminster and his enemies were strategically placed to put themselves between him and the capital. He believed that the threat to him was mortal; Russell was well aware of this and of Richard’s plans from previous correspondence. Naturally, Richard wanted control of the Great Seal to authenticate his rule but just as importantly to deny it to his enemies. Similarly, the suggestion of a breakdown of trust between Richard and Russell does not bear close examination. Richard was many things but he was not stupid; it is inconceivable that he would entrust his plans ‘at large’ to someone he didn’t trust. There is also the evidence of Richard’s postscript wherein he expressed his faith that Russell would send the Great Seal to him. Its possession was of such overwhelming importance to Richard, and secrecy was so vital (There are obvious risks to it being carried by a single horseman.) that he is equally unlikely to have entrusted that task to anyone he didn’t trust. A distrustful Richard would probably have sent one of his own men of action to take possession of the seal. Indeed, in May, as duke of Gloucester, he sent his personal Herald to take it from Rotherham. If we judge men by their actions, the fact that Russell complied with the king’s wishes with such alacrity and that the Great Seal was later returned to him (Russell) before witnesses in the Star Chamber is a clear indication that the Lord Chancellor retained the king’s trust and confidence.

 

Conclusion

Although many people suspect Richard III of doing away with his nephews, suspicion is not evidence and there is no evidence that he murdered them or, indeed, that anyone murdered them. I do not know the princes’ fate and neither does anybody else. Nor do I pretend that these letters offer a solution to the mystery, since they leave too many unanswered and unanswerable questions for that. But they do sharpen our silhouette of England’s most enigmatic king and his relationship with his first minister of state during the crucial period of 1483-85. And they add substance to a neat epigram about those events, which I read somewhere. Those who knew most said least; those who knew least said most.

 

Quite what Holmes might have deduced from this correspondence is difficult to say, since he famously eschewed theorising without data. Of course, his prospect of solving the mysterious disappearance of the two princes would undoubtedly be enhanced if only John Russell was available to be interviewed.

[1] A Conan-Doyle – The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (Penguin 1950) p.28

[2] Pamela Tudor-Craig – Brochure: Richard III (biographical exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery 1973) pp.39-41

[3] A. J. Pollard, ‘Shirwood, John (d. 1493)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Jan 2008 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/25447, accessed 25 Nov 2017]

[4] D. P. Wright, ‘Langton, Thomas (c.1430–1501)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2009 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/16045, accessed 25 Nov 2017]

[5] Charles Ross – Richard III (Yale 1999 edition) p.151 and note 16

[6] CJ Armstrong (Ed) – The Usurpation of Richard III by Dominic Mancini [1483] (Oxford 1969 edition) pp. 93 and 127 note 89. Mancini wrote: ’The physician Dr Argentine, the last of his servants whose services the king enjoyed, reported that the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him’. Armstrong argues that Dr Argentine and Mancini were well acquainted: they were social equals and Argentine spoke fluent Italian (pp.19-20).

[7] Tudor-Craig p.44; Shirwood wrote ‘De Ludo Arithmomachia; De Ludo Philosophorum; Ludus Astronomorum’ (Treatise on a Mathematical Game) in about 1475. Tudor-Craig postulates that Shirwood personally gave Dr Argentine a copy of his treatise in London during the summer of 1483.

[8] Charles Ross- Richard III (Yale 1999 edition) p.132

[9] Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (2005); see also Chambers Dictionary (13th edition, 2014)

[10] Richard Sylvester – The Complete Edited Works of St Thomas More, Volume 2: the History of Richard III (Yale 1963) p.25

[11] Armstrong p.85

[12] Alison Hanham – The Cely Letters (EETS Oxford 1975) pp. 184-85. See also Michael Hicks – Richard III (Tempus 2000 edition) p.45, for a different translation of this note ‘There is great rumour in the realm. The Scots have done great [damage] in England, the Chamberlain is deceased in trouble, the Chancellor [Rotherham] is deprived and not content, the bishop of Ely is dead (my emphases)’. Professor Hicks is wrong, however, to suggest that Thomas Rotherham was the Chancellor, he was the archbishop of York; Russell was the Chancellor. Neither can it be easy to confuse ‘desperate’ with ‘deprived’, though the professor managed it

[13] Christine Carpenter (Ed) – Kingsford’s Stonor Letters and Papers 1290-1483 (Cambridge UP 1996) pp.159-60. See also Alison Hanham – Varieties of Error and Kingsford’s Stonor Letters and Papers (Ricardian, Vol 11, No.142, Sept 1998) p.350

[14] Alison Hanham – Remedying a Mischief: Bishop John Russell and the royal title (Ricardian Vol.12, No.151, December 2000) p.149

[15] Hanham (Ricardian) ibid

[16] Hicks pp. 114-16; to be fair, Professor Hicks argues that Richard always planned to seize the throne, but at this time nobody else realised it. His support soon fell away after he deposed Edward V

[17] Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (Eds) – The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (The R3 and Yorkist Historical Trust 1986) p.153

[18] S B Chrimes – English Constitutional Ideas in the 15th Century (Cambridge 1936) pp.168-78; Chrimes reproduces all three of Russell’s draft speeches.

[19] Tudor-Craig ibid; Michael Hicks – Unweaving the Web: the plot of July 1483 against Richard III and its wider significance (Ricardian Vol 9, No.114, September 1991) pp.106-109; see also Annette Carson – Richard III; the maligned king (The History Press 2013 edition) pp. 151-68 passim. Both of these authors provide useful discussion about the July 1483 ‘plot’

[20] Pronay and Cox p.163

[21] Tudor-Craig pp.54-55

[22] Hanham (Ricardian) p.236: Hanham describes the word ‘had’ as ‘a subjunctive accusation of past possibility or past unreality…plainly they had been stopped before they could put their alleged plan into effect’. See also Hicks (Unweaving the web,,,), passim.

[23] Tudor-Craig ibid.

[24] Mancini left England shortly after Richard’s coronation (6 July 1483). Interestingly, he records only a suspicion that Edward V was ‘done away with’; he does not record any suspicion about the fate of the duke of York who was heir presumptive. The other interesting point is how this squares with the Cely memorandum, which expressed fears for the lives of king Edward V, his brother the Duke of York and his uncle the Duke of Gloucester.

[25] Pronay and Cox ibid

[26] Rosemary Horrox – Richard III and London (Ricardian Vol.6, 1984) pp325-26 and 329 citing: John Stow – The Annals or General Chronicle of England (1615) p.460. Also, Michael Jones – Richard III and Lady Margaret Beaufort: a re-assessment, in – Richard III: loyalty, lordship and law (PW Hammond [Ed] (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) pp. 30-31; Carson ibid and Henry Ellis (Ed) – Three Books of Polydore Vergil’s English History: comprising the reigns of Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III (Camden Society 1844) pp. 194-95

[27] Hicks (Unweaving the web…) p.107

[28] Hicks pp.107-109

[29] Paul Murray Kendall – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin 1955) p.324

[30] Kendall ibid

[31] Ross p.137

[32] R Horrox and PW Hammond [Eds] – British Library Harleian Manuscript 433 in four volumes (Sutton Publishing and the R3S 1979); it contains the strictly contemporary Register of Grants and Signet Letters written during Richard III’s reign and passing through Russell’s hands.

[33] Peter and Patricia Hairsine – The Chancellor’s File: published in J Petre [Ed] Richard III, crown and people (The Richard III Society 1984) p. 418, which reproduces the original letter (PRO reference C/1392/6); see also Tudor-Craig p.79

[34] Louise Gill – Richard III and Buckingham’s Rebellion (Sutton 2000 edition) p.6

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