Every September on Wakes Monday, which follows Wakes Sunday, an unusual dance takes place in the small Staffordshire village of Abbots Bromley. A company of dancers bearing huge, ancient reindeer horns, accompanied by a Fool with a pig’s bladder, a Maid Marion who is a man in female dress, a Hobby Horse, a Triangle Player, a Musician, and an Archer played by a young child, dance throughout the village then journey out across the nearby reservoir to Blithfield Hall, stopping and performing along the way.
How long this dance has taken place is unknown but it is assumed to be medieval. There was a right to hold a fair granted to the village of Abbots Bromley in 1221 and a carbon date from one set of antlers goes back to 1065–before the Norman Conquest. As the antlers are from reindeer, they (or the animals that bore them)must have been imported from Scandinavia, as reindeer are not believed to have been extant in Britain at this period. The first official mention of dancing is in 1532 when the Hobby Horse is mention (the old Hobby Horse, a bit decrepit, hangs in St Nicholas’church), and a later account of the 1600’s describes the dance as we know it. The participants wear ‘Tudor’ style costumes today.
The last performance takes place before the Bagot family of Blithfield Hall, which is not normally open to the public. The Bagots have lived at the hall since the 14th C, although the structure is mainly Elizabeth with a 19th C Gothic facade. The Bagot family are related to the Earls of Stafford and hence the Dukes of Buckingham; in 1195 Hervey Bagot married Millicent, the daughter and heiress of the Earl of Stafford.
We Ricardians know all about the problems, if not to say mysteries, that can arise from the final resting places of famous figures from the past. It doesn’t help that in the medieval period especially a person’s remains could be moved from place to place. Edward IV had his father and brother moved from Pontefract south to Fotheringhay, and Richard III had Henry VI moved from Chertsey Abbey to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. And, of course, for centuries there was the puzzle as to whether the remains of Richard III himself were thrown contemptuously into Leicester’s River Soar, or actually buried at Greyfriars. The latter eventually and very famously proved to be the case.
Now I have happened on another “where was he buried?” mystery, this time from the end of the reign of Edward II. While researching a few details about the later-in-the-14th-century marital goings-on of the 10th/3rd Earl of Arundel, Richard Fitzalan, known as “Copped Hat”, I found myself reading about his first wife, Isabel le Despenser, whom he married on this day, 9 February, in 1321. She was the daughter of Hugh Despenser, 1st Lord Despenser, known to history as Despenser the Younger, to distinguish him from his father, who was, yes, Despenser the Elder. Both were favourites of Edward II, and came to the fore after the abduction, trial and execution of another of the king’s favourites, Piers Gaveston. All three came to nasty ends, as (probably) did Edward II himself, and there is there is a famous illustration of the hanging, drawing and quartering of the younger Despenser in Hereford, see above.
Because of her father’s attainder and shameful execution, Isabel became an inconvenience to Copped Hat. Besides which his lustful and ambitious eye had fallen upon Eleanor of Lancaster, who’d be a much more advantageous Countess of Arundel. As Copped Hat was one of the richest and most influential magnates in the England of Edward II’s son, Edward III, he didn’t have any trouble at all in gaining the Pope’s permission to annul his first marriage, thus clearing the way for Eleanor to slip into the earl’s marital bed.
Where is all this leading? Well, to the fact that the younger Despenser’s widow was apparently granted her husband’s remains (well some of them – ‘the head, a thigh bone and a few vertebrae’) and she had them buried in a lavish tomb at Tewkesbury Abbey.
But in 2004 there were reports that Despenser’s remains had been found during archaeological excavations at Hulton Abbey in Staffordshire. These “new” remains lacked the very bones that had been returned to the younger Despenser’s widow and buried at Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire.
So, if the Hulton Abbey remains are indeed those of the younger Despenser, why wasn’t all of him returned to his widow? Why send her some of him, and then bury the rest at Hulton Abbey? He died in Hereford, and was then buried in Staffordshire and Gloucestershire?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most people, even if they haven’t read/tried to read, the ancient British poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, will at least know the opening scene. It’s Christmas at Camelot, and King Arthur and his knights are enjoying themselves, feasting and celebrating, when into the hall rides a huge knight who carries a sprig of holly. He is normal enough in every aspect, except for his gigantic size and the fact that he and his horse are emerald-green from head to toe/hoof. He challenges anyone to decapitate him, and Gawain steps up to the challenge. Swinging his sword, he lops the giant’s head, which rolls across the floor. The knights, being rather sozzled, kick it around…until, to their horror, the Green Knight’s body rises and comes across the pick up its head, which it puts back in place on its neck. Then he utters a solemn challenge to Gawain that twelve months hence, he, Gawain, is to find the Green Knight, who will return the decapitating favour. Chivalry demands that Gawain accepts the challenge, and the gist of the long poem that follows covers his journey to find the Green Knight’s lair.
This 600+-years-old alliterative work, written around 1400, is one of the jewels in the crown of British poetry. Originally it had no title, but over the centuries acquired the one we all know now. Alliteration is one of the hallmarks of English poetry, and Simon Armitage, who has written his own updated version of the poem, not only recognises the importance of this “tool”, but incorporates it into his work. Thus his chosen words are in the narrative of the amazing BBC4 documentary which goes by the same title as the poem itself. I have just watched it on BBC iPlayer, and do not know if it is available elsewhere, but if you can watch it, I hope you do.
The film is beautifully filmed during a very soggy English winter, and endeavours to follow the route of Gawain’s quest for the Green Knight. It is full of nature and the scenery, introducing ancient British legends and creatures long gone from our shores. We are reminded, visually, of how very lovely and unique the land is in which modern man still lives. Gawain is a devout Christian in a world filled with the supernatural. He encounters wild men called wodwose, trolls, giants, bears…and the occasional boar. And a very sexy lady who leads him from the straight and narrow into a curtained bed, where she has her evil way with him.
There are some fine set pieces in the film, especially a sequence filmed at Haddon Hall in Derbyshire. A wonderful array of authentic medieval food is laid out on a white-clothed trestle table in the hall, with greenery adorning windows, tables and furniture. A large fire flickers and crackles in the hearth, and it is so atmospheric that it captures and holds the attention , lingering long after Gawain has moved on.
The story reaches its climax (it is thought) at Lud’s Church in Staffordshire (see illustration above). The soggy English winter is relentless, and just before this there are scenes higher on the Peaks, where clouds clings to the summit, and figures and scenery are misty shapes.
Be warned that the film is a bit gory when it comes to killing, gutting and skinning a pig, but that was the only part where I had to look away. There is an excellent soundtrack of eerie, otherworldly songs and music. The whole adds up to a staggeringly beautiful documentary, showing how close to paganism medieval Christians actually were. I thoroughly recommend it, especially if you need to be reminded that Britain is unique and can offer far, far more than most of the world. Well, in my opinion. I adore my homeland in all its seasons, and am proud to be part of it.
I mentioned earlier that poet Simon Armitage has written his own version of this ancient poem, complete with updated language and the very necessary alliteration. I have ordered it, because I know, from this documentary, that it must be well worth reading. Thank you, Simon and the BBC for an hour of pure enjoyment and beauty.
I have now received and delved through Simon Armitage’s updated version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and it has lived up to my hopes. Of course, there have been other such updates, but in my opinion they do not compare. As for the original in Middle English, well, it’s beyond me completely. The following describes the startling arrival of the Green Knight at the Christmas feast in Camelot.:-
An oþer noyse ful newe neȝed biliue, Þat þe lude myȝt haf leue liflode to cach; For vneþe watz þe noyce not a whyle sesed, And þe fyrst cource in þe court kyndely serued, Þer hales in at þe halle dor an aghlich mayster, On þe most on þe molde on mesure hyghe; Fro þe swyre to þe swange so sware and so þik, And his lyndes and his lymes so longe and so grete, [folio 93r] Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were, Bot mon most I algate mynn hym to bene, And þat þe myriest in his muckel þat myȝt ride; For of bak and of brest al were his bodi sturne, Both his wombe and his wast were worthily smale, And alle his fetures folȝande, in forme þat he hade, ful clene; For wonder of his hwe men hade, Set in his semblaunt sene; He ferde as freke were fade, And oueral enker-grene.
Hmm, yes. Totally beyond me. Whereas the same passage from Simon Armitage’s book brings it all wonderfully to life for my modern self:-
Because another sound, a new sound, suddenly drew near, which might signal the king to sample his supper, for barely had the horns finished blowing their breath and with starters just spooned to the seated guests, a fearful form appeared, framed in the door: a mountain of a man, immeasurably high, a hulk of a human from head to hips, so long and thick in his loins and limbs I should genuinely judge him to be a half-giant, or a massive man, the mightiest of mortals. But handsome too, like any horseman worth his horse, for despite the bulk and brawn of his body his stomach and waist were slender and sleek. In fact in all features he was finely formed it seemed. Amazement seized their minds, no soul had ever seen… a knight of such a kind – entirely emerald green….
So yes, I do recommend this book. Read and enjoy.
Available in hardback, paperback, kindle and audio.
Tutbury Castle is being investigated by a team of young people from the Prince’s Trust, who have exposed a 17th-century floor. But Tutbury’s earlier history is mentioned, including Richard III’s 3-day visit from 22nd-26th October 1484. It is believed he went there to inspect building work, upon which £919 had been spent. I hope they’d spent it wisely!
Had they read Rhoda Edwards’ The Itinerary of King Richard III 1483-85, they might have learned of this connection decades ago when it was published in 1983! In any case, it is gratifying to see the enthusiasm with which the staff have embraced the castle’s Ricardian ties.
Tutbury Castle has a link not only to Richard III but also to his brother, George, Duke of Clarence. And in some historians’ minds, it played a critical role in influencing the actions of “false, fleeting, perjur’d Clarence” in his 1471-74 dispute with Richard over the Warwick Inheritance.
Just short of his seventeenth birthday, Clarence attained the age of majority, set off for his lordship of Tutbury, and was “at once immersed in administrative reform and litigation”. (M.A. Hicks, False, Fleeting, Perjur’d Clarence, pp. 26-7) Tutbury was part of the Duchy of Lancaster and thus owned by the crown since the accession of Henry IV in 1399. Clarence came to possess it by a grant from his brother Edward IV in the early 1460s, and it, along with Warwick Castle (Warwickshire) and Tiverton (Devon), became one of his principal residences. (Hicks, pp. 183-4)
Like many Duchy estates, it was managed by a steward, reeves, bailiffs and parkers – all generally from the local gentry and appointed by the king. When Clarence set off for Tutbury in 1466, he encountered a common fiscal dilemma in local Duchy administration. Many of the castle’s officers withheld the revenue they had collected; others misappropriated property or abused their power. “At Tutbury, where they had been accustomed to treating the estate as their own, Clarence had to resort to the courts not only to secure his revenue, but also to curb large scale poaching of his game.” (Hicks, 184) Every autumn thereafter, Clarence’s ministers would assemble for the purpose of auditing their accounts. (Hicks, 184)
Tutbury, however, would be on the bargaining table when Clarence defected to the Kingmaker’s campaign to put Henry VI back on the throne. Henry VI, his queen and his son, as well as the Lancastrians who were attainted and fled England after the Battle of Towton in 1461, demanded the return of confiscated estates to them once Lancastrian rule was restored in 1470. Tutbury had been used to dower Queen Margaret of Anjou, so what would happen to it once Henry VI re-occupied the throne? According to the Treaty of Angers, which was confirmed by Henry VI and presumably executed by Parliament, Clarence agreed to give up the honor of Tutbury, in exchange for the Duchy of York and full compensation for the loss of his other Duchy holdings. (Hicks, 88-97)
Following the restoration of Edward IV in 1471, Clarence came to re-possess Tutbury by a grant from his brother. However, he would lose it again in the dispute over the Warwick Inheritance with his brother Richard, then Duke of Gloucester. In 1473, Parliament passed an Act of Resumption which had the effect of nullifying all grants the king had made to Clarence. A year later, in 1474, Parliament passed a statute dividing the Warwick Inheritance between the two brothers. Clarence received other properties from the king to soften the blow of losing Tutbury.
Michael Hicks asserts that Clarence’s loyalties to Edward IV were weakened when he lost Tutbury during the division of the Warwick Inheritance in 1473. Yet, puzzlingly, Clarence had agreed to lose Tutbury without compensation in the Treaty of Angers of 1470, when he was negotiating with Henry VI and the Lancastrians. Tutbury had been a significant source of revenue for Clarence. It yielded forty per cent of his income. Its loss reduced his revenues to the levels received by Henry V’s brothers and made him dependent on the Warwick Inheritance. (Hicks, 193) While George still remained one of the wealthiest nobles in the realm, the loss of Tutbury injured his status and underscored the erosion of his “pride of place” in the Yorkist hierarchy. Thereafter, he was observed to have withdrawn from the royal court and later became so estranged from Edward IV’s favor that he was executed for treason in 1478, at the age of 28.
In 1484, Richard III stayed at Tutbury Castle for five days in October, where he issued a warrant to the auditors to perform an accounting of how funds had been used in a significant construction project there. One wonders if he thought about his brother Clarence, who had been executed six years earlier and who had so valued Tutbury as a principal residence and source of income, albeit for only a few fleeting years.