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It appears that the traditional assumptions surrounding the execution of William, Lord Hastings in June of 1483, generally incline towards the idea that the Lord Protector, Richard Duke of Gloucester, simply lost his temper and so, without lawful trial or consultation, ordered the immediate beheading of his previous friend, virtually on the spur of the moment.

This assumption is derived from depictions in Tudor literature claiming that the Duke of Gloucester was infuriated by Hastings’ rigid support of the uncrowned Edward V, contrary to the wishes of the wicked duke who was eager to usurp the throne in the prince’s stead. This account of these events was written down after many preceding decades of indoctrination, when the Tudor-era orthodoxy of the usurping, murdering king had become imprinted on popular consciousness.

The writer who invested the confrontation with its best-known dramatic scenario, later adopted by Shakespeare, was Sir Thomas More, whose various attempts at a ‘history of Richard III’ are loathed by some, beloved of many, and seriously analysed by all too few. Since there exists no official contemporary documentation of exactly what happened, More’s chatty details attract those searching for explanations. It is often further assumed that, although More’s various elaborate accounts concern a time when he was a child and certainly not present, on the occasion of Hastings’ death, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, was certainly present and must therefore have witnessed exactly what happened. More, it is said, would thus have been told the truth by Morton some years afterwards when the young Thomas later lived as a page in Morton’s household.

However, regardless of assumptions, Thomas More himself reveals no source of information for his dramatic construction concerning the Duke of Gloucester’s peremptory execution of Hastings pursuant to a hissy fit. It is unsupported by any contemporary source, although the execution itself was condemned by some contemporary chroniclers. Sadly, very few later commentators appear to have bothered to take into account the bias of those contemporary accounts, or the probable circumstances (leaving dramatics aside) that actually led to Hastings making an attempt on Gloucester’s life.

Let us take one point at a time:

1) The incident occurred in the context of two events which are generally agreed to have preceded it, i.e. the disclosure that there was an impediment to Edward IV’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville which rendered their offspring potentially illegitimate, and the discovery by Gloucester of threats to his life which prompted him to call for protection in the shape of forces from the North, combining in an atmosphere of heightened tension and insecurity.

2) Contemporary accounts report that Hastings was officially accused of treason. The simultaneous arrests of several others support the existence of a treasonous conspiracy. Any assumption that this accusation of treason was untrue is unsupported by any existing evidence. The crime of treason at that time was the most serious in the land, and could not be slung at just anyone, in particular someone as powerful as Lord Hastings, without any substantiation. In days leading up to the arrest and execution, Hastings is reported to have been seen visiting the houses of Morton and others who were caught up in the arrests. Morton and Hastings were most unlikely companions and this report – if true – raises considerable suspicion.

3) Some people mistakenly suppose that the crime of treason related only and exclusively to violent actions against the ruling monarch’s person. This is untrue and there are many sources which indicate that treason took many and varied forms. The further assumption that Hastings was simply attempting to support the true king (the young uncrowned Edward V) against the actions of the Protector, and therefore his attack on the Protector was not treason but loyalty to the crown, is an even further exaggerated train of suppositions without support, evidence, or even logic.

4) Others accused of having been involved in the same treason were arrested at the same time:- three present in the council chamber, and several others across London – their arrests carefully timed to coincide. This points to the uncovering of a treasonous conspiracy and the planning of a lawful reaction which would stop that treason before it became any more dangerous.

5) There is an account of a public proclamation made immediately after the execution, regarding the treason and the culprits’ arrest. There was neither secrecy nor lack of explanation given to the public concerning the situation. The accusation of treason and its consequences remained undisputed by any legal challenge or recorded public outcry at the time.

6) More’s account, written so many years later, denies the legality of the Protector’s actions. But More had no possible way of knowing the details he recounted. The mighty and extremely busy John Morton (by then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor) chatting at length with his insignificant page and telling him stories of what happened many years previously, is not only highly unlikely but somewhat ingenuous. Indeed, Morton would rarely even have been at home let alone conducting cosy discussions with one of his pages. However, if such an improbable little scene did take place, the fact that Morton himself was one of those arrested and accused of treason, would certainly place a huge doubt on the veracity of any tale he told.

7) Richard of Gloucester’s proven record of rationality, of intelligent administration and commitment to the rule of law, would make this supposed hissy fit exceedingly out of character.

8) The arrests and following events took place in a council meeting at the Tower, in front of members of the Royal Council – the most powerful and influential lords of the land, together with their attendant officers. It is both naive and absurd to suppose that Richard could behave in some highly improper and illegal manner in such company without consequences to himself including a virtual battle in the council chamber.

9) Kindly old Hastings, simply standing loyally by the rights of his old friend’s son, is a total illusion. Hastings was a massively ambitious man. His many years of fighting bitterly against Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, the queen’s elder son and Lord Rivers, her brother, (largely regarding disputed land borders) show him to have been ruthless and capable of cruelty. He had recently quarrelled with Edward IV and been deprived of some of his power, but this was – after warnings given – returned to him just before the king’s death. Hastings was certainly no cosy daddy-figure.

10) As for the allegedly illegal execution – and this is the most important ingredient in the murky soup of supposition – the accepted legal powers of the High Constable, (one of Richard of Gloucester’s long-held and most powerful offices) empowered him to hold an immediate trial of Hastings for treason in that place and at that time, and to pass sentence without leave of appeal. The other members of the council present would have stood witness, thus there was no outcry against the following execution. Since no documentation survives (and indeed the Court operated under the Law of Arms and was not required to keep records), it is impossible to say if any such trial took place. There is no specific evidence that it happened. Nor is there any specific evidence that it did not. However – since Richard of Gloucester was most certainly empowered to hold such a trial, it is logical and natural from what is known of his concern for the justice system, that he would have used the legal powers at his disposal. What is now doubted and frowned upon by modern judges with little or no comprehension of the medieval mind, would have seemed utterly right in those days – and in fact utterly necessary according to the situation. Summary courts with powers of life and limb, such as that of the High Constable, were important elements in the exercise of authority during the Middle Ages, and in fact Hastings himself presided over just such a summary court at Calais.

For this knowledge I am entirely indebted to Annette Carson and her recently published book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER, AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND which outlines with considerable clarity and detail, based on existing documentation and clear historical precedent, the official powers the Duke of Gloucester held in 1483. This book does not set out to prove the rights and/or wrongs of the situation regarding Hastings’s execution, nor does it prove that any trial took place. It does indicate, however, that a trial could immediately have been called, and that if the proceedings found him guilty of treason Hastings would have been justly and legally executed.

In the first months of 1483 after King Edward’s death, the country was in a perilous position, and it was the duty of the Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm to keep the land and its people safe. There had already been an attempt to raise an army and civil war might have ensued (certainly the queen’s family continued organising uprisings, which came to fruition in the autumn months). It was Richard’s principal responsibility to be aware of all dangers and put a stop to them before the risk might escalate. Such an attitude must have been paramount when faced with whatever treason was discovered. That his actions are now seen as suspicious is a function of the villainy later attributed to his actions, and appears to ignore the pressures and demands involved in his personal responsibility for national security.

Today, amongst those interested (whether or not they have researched the era or the life of Richard III at all) there is a somewhat irritating attitude by which if you argue and judge Richard III guilty of something, then you are being open minded and unbiased. Whereas if you argue and judge him innocent, then clearly you are prejudiced and are making an attempt to exonerate and justify him and treat him as a saint.

But most of those who exhibit the former attitude appear to think the powerful lords of the late fifteenth century must have been weaklings and brainless puppets, too stupid or frightened to stand up for themselves. They sat meekly, it seems, while the wicked Duke of Gloucester got away with anything and everything. It is unwise to so vastly underestimate the over-riding power of the lords and the church, the three estates of parliament and the Royal Council during this period. Had they so meekly acquiesced to apparent villainy, they would, in fact, have been complicit to it. Instead no single man ever held absolute total power, not even the king.

See Annette Carson’s book RICHARD III; THE MALIGNED KING which remains a reliable source for the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings and the other important events of 1483 following the death of King Edward IV.


The house that Thomas Grey built….

Bradgate House, Lady Jane Grey's home

Maybe this isn’t Richard-associated particularly, but the house was commenced in 1499 by Thomas Grey, 1st Marquess of Dorset, so it’s fairly close. I hope the archaeologists find much of interest. 


The Tragedy of King Richard 111 (not by William Shakespeare)

Part 4 – “… the corruption of a blemished stock “

A beauty-waning and distressed widow,

   Even in the afternoon of her best days,

   Made prize and purchase of his wanton eye

   Seduced the pitch and height of his degree

   To base declension and loathed bigamy. “

   (William Shakespeare)


“ Is all things ready for the royal time?”

There is very little contemporary material about what was happening in May 1483, after the Council meeting. The picture we have is of everybody busy preparing for the king’s coronation on the 22 June. The council, led by the Lord Protector, was in a difficult if not an impossible position trying to govern and defend the realm without the royal treasure (stolen by the Woodvilles) and the fleet (commandeered by the Woodville’s)[1]. Nevertheless, the Lord Protector continued to act with propriety and it is evident that he intended to crown Edward V. Despite the queen’s intransigence, he acted lawfully and was especially careful to try and negotiate a peaceful end to her sanctuary[2].

As late as the 5 June 1483, the Protector summoned all those who were to be knighted, to come to London at least four days prior to the coronation. The same day he wrote to the citizens of York apologizing for the fact he that was too busy with the coronation preparations to deal with their recent request for financial relief. The significance of this letter is its ordinariness, which is in stark contrast to his letter to the same citizens five days later. In the second letter, the Protector requested troops to help against the queen and her blood adherents who were planning to murder him and Buckingham. It was a noticeable change in tone. The inference that he was suddenly alarmed by this murderous conspiracy is doubtful, as he had known of the threat to his life since Stony Stratford or earlier. If it was in response to that threat, he has left it too late; York’s troops could not reach London much before the end of June. I believe that something else has happened between the 5 and 10 June 1483, which alerted the Protector to a new and very serious threat to the stability of the realm and to him.[3]

The ‘wicked bishop’

It is Philippé De Commynes a Flemish knight in the service of Louis XI who provides a possible explanation for his change of attitude. “ The Bishop of Bath and Wells (Robert Stillington) revealed to the duke of Gloucester that king Edward, being enamoured of a certain English lady promised to marry her provided he could sleep with her first and she consented. The Bishop said that he had married them and only he and they were present. He was a courtier so did not disclose this fact and helped to keep the lady quiet, and things remained like this for a while. Later king Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers.” [4] It would be wrong to say, as James Gairdner did, that the evidence of this pre contract rests on the ‘single testimony’ of Robert Stillington, since the truth is we do not have his testimony: not a word of it. We do not know when or where Edward and Eleanor were married[5], or even when Stillington revealed all to the protector. What we do know is that this revelation, if true, had serious implications for the royal succession. It would make, Edward’s subsequent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville bigamous and their offspring illegitimate, and unable in law to succeed to the throne[6]. I believe it was this news that worried the Protector.

Sir Clement Markham suggests that Stillington told Gloucester and the council about the pre-contract on Sunday the 8 June 1483[7]. All we know about this meeting is what we get from a letter written by Simon Stallworth to Sir William Stonor, in which he writes: “My Lord Protector, my Lord of Buckingham and all other Lords, as well temporal as spiritual [sic] were at Westminster”. It’s a pity that Stallworth either doesn’t know or declines to reveal what was actually discussed. The meeting lasted for four hours, which is unusually long for an update on preparations for the coronation. Also, Stallworth writes that they discussed great business about the coronation’. I infer from this phrase that this was not a routine meeting. It is also interesting to note that nobody spoke to the queen’, which suggests that negotiations between the Lord Protector and the queen had broken down and something important was happening.

Stallworth’s phrase”…great business against the coronation…” is ambiguous: perhaps deliberately so. Most historians think he meant ‘in preparation for or in anticipation of the coronation’. However, the word ‘against’ has eighteen different meanings in the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, five of which use the word in the sense of ‘resistance to or opposition to…’ Is it possible that Stallworth is referring obliquely to a discussion about the pre-contract, including the propriety of proceeding with the coronation? However, Stallworth could just as easily have been disseminating a sanitized version of events meant for publication. It is also likely that the Protector needed more time to investigate the veracity of Stillington’s claim. Whilst there may well have been a serious discussion about the situation, it was more likely to take place in camera[8].

I think that by the 10 June 1483, Gloucester was convinced that Stillington’s story was true. In his letter to York of the same date he is not reacting to a new threat from Dorset and Hastings, but preparing himself for the possibility of a Woodville counterstroke, once the existence of the pre-contract became public knowledge. He was obviously worried about the increased prospect of civil war breaking out again. Neither can there be any doubt that the personal consequences were also on his mind. The letter to York provides a convenient cover story, which gives nothing new away if it falls into the wrong hands.

Robert Stillington (d1491)[9] rose from humble origins to become Edward IV’s Chancellor in 1467. This suggests that Kendall’s description of him, as “a man of mediocre talents, not remarkable for strength of character” was both unfair and untrue[10]. He served Edward IV as Chancellor until 1473, when he retired through ill health. Thereafter he fell from favour. In 1478, he was imprisoned for “uttering words prejudicial to the king and state”.[11] After paying a ‘round sum’ he was forgiven and released. However, he never worked for Edward IV again. It is possible that he revealed the pre-contract in 1483 out of resentment over his fall from grace and a desire for revenge against the Woodville’s. If so, he received no discernible reward from Gloucester. It is equally possible that he felt bound to raise such a grave impediment to the succession of Edward V once it became obvious that he would be a figurehead under the control of the Woodvilles. We simply don’t know, essentially. There is nothing in his private or public life to suggest he was untrustworthy. Neither has anybody been able to produce evidence that he invented the pre-contract story either on his own or as part of a conspiracy with Gloucester, or that he allowed Gloucester to put him up to it.   There are no grounds for doubting Stillington’s credibility as a truthful eyewitness to the marriage of the king and Eleanor Butler. Neither is there much force in the argument that Stillington’s story was known to be false at the time. The only doubts that were expressed came from sources in southern England, which was a region hostile to king Richard during his lifetime. Furthermore, they were written after his death at a time when Henry VII was actively trying to re-write the official history of king Richard’s protectorship and reign.

“He that filches me of my good name robs me of that which not enriches him and makes me poor”

It is unfortunate, that whatever proofs of evidence Stillington provided have not survived. It is this gap in the paper trail that encourages some historians to believe that the pre-contract story was a fabrication. Even if we disregard the illogicality of such a belief (It does not necessarily follow from the absence of written proof that Stillington was lying, much less that he and Gloucester conspired to tell lies.), it overlooks or disregards the fundamental importance of Titulus Regius (The King’s Title) in ratifying king Richard’s election by the ‘three estates’ and his title to the crown. In the absence of evidence of coercion or deception it requires more that Crowland’s cavalier comment that Parliament acquiesced through fear, to convince me that king Richard’s election was a fraud[12].

There are other circumstantial details, which taken together indicate the truth of Stillington’s story. Henry VII’s actions after Bosworth are of special importance. In his first Parliament (November 1485), Henry repealed Titulus Regius without being read. This was unheard of in Parliamentary history. Furthermore, the king ordered all existing copies of Titulus Regius to be destroyed on pain of punishment[13]. This was a deliberate attempt by Henry VII to pervert our understanding of historical events.   It is obvious that he had to repeal Titulus Regius, since he relied on his wife’s (Elizabeth of York) title to bolster his own weak title. There was no question of allowing the declaration of her bastardy to remain. However, his attempt to expunge Titulus Regius from the official record, as though it had never existed calls into question his motive. His own explanation, that he could not bear to have this infamy of his wife and her family remembered, is no doubt the truth, but it is not the whole truth. If we combine this parliamentary manoeuvre with his treatment of Robert Stillington, we gain some insight into the king’s possible motive. Almost before king Richard’s corpse was cold on the field of Bosworth, Henry Tudor issued a warrant for the arrest of Robert Stillington. The bishop was arrested, convicted of ‘horrible and heinous offences imagined [This means ‘planned: Stillington was not convicted for his naughty thoughts.] and done’, and imprisoned.   And then Henry pardoned him: why? He also refused a request by his judges to examine Stillington as to the facts of the pre contract: why? It may well have been due to Stillington’s age and infirmity; though such considerations never usually stopped Henry from ruthlessly enforcing his interests. It may equally be that he believed the story was true and feared that a formal investigation would fatally undermine his own pretensions to the crown.

“He capers nimbly in a lady’s chamber “

Finally, the existence of the pre-contract was plausible. In fact, king Edward IV’s lascivious behaviour was notorious. Crowland describes him in general terms as “ …a gross man so addicted to conviviality, vanity, drunkenness, extravagance and passion…”[14] Mancini is more descriptive: “ He was licentious in the extreme: moreover it was said that had been most insolent to numerous women after he had seduced them, for, as soon as he grew weary of the dalliance, he gave up the ladies much against their will to the other courtiers [Hastings, Rivers and Dorset?]. He pursued with no discrimination the married and unmarried the noble and the lowly: however he took none by force. He overcame all by money and promises, and having conquered them, he dismissed them.”[15] That is strong stuff indeed.   And if we want an example of how he used his power to promise anything to get into bed with women, we need look no further than his clandestine ‘marriage’ to Elizabeth Grey. It is a classic example of the king’s modus operandi.  The question of the notoriety of Edward’s behaviour and his marriage to Eleanor Butler is also important in a legal context and it is something I will be dealing with in another essay.

I leave the last word to Sir James Gairdner: “ The story of the pre-contract has been generally discredited by historians; but without pretending that it rests on very satisfactory evidence, we may still affirm that there are no sufficient grounds for regarding it as a mere political invention.”[16]

[1]. Rosemary Horrox and PW Hammond – British Library Harleian Manuscript 433 (R3S 1979) 4 Volumes, V3 at pages 29-30. Lord Dynham, the commander of the Calais garrison wrote to the Lord Protector, explaining his intention to petition Parliament to find ways for ensuring the continuing payment of the Calais garrison.

[2]. BL Harl 443, V1 at page 16; the Protector wrote to Thomas Bourchier, the Archbishop of Canterbury sometime between the 16 and 19 May. He wanted an urgent meeting with all the senior clergy to discuss “certain difficult and urgent matters”, which would be made clearer at the meeting: a crisis? It is possible that the Protector was trying to secure a peaceful and legal end to the queen’s sanctuary. Unfortunately, we do not know that outcome of this request.

[3]. The tendency to regard Gloucester’s change of attitude as being due to the recent discovery of a plot to kill him and Buckingham is understandable since that is what he wrote in his letter to York.   However, there is another possible explanation. It is based on the premise that Gloucester was alarmed by the consequences for the realm if Stillington’s revelation proved true. No doubt, he wanted to test the truth of Stillington’s story and think about those consequences. Viewed in this light, his request to York was a sensible and timely call for reinforcements to guard against the possibility of civil disorder once the pre-contract became common knowledge. He used the murder plot as an excuse to ensure that the citizens of York took him seriously and to keep his knowledge secret. I accept that this is speculation, but it does explain why Gloucester apparently waited until it was too late to get help. If the ‘plot’ was so alarming and urgent, his delay bordered on incompetence: not what I would expect from a man acknowledged by all to be an efficient soldier and administrator.

[4] . Phillipé De Commynes – Memoirs: the reign of Louis XI 1461-1483 (Penguin 1972) at pages 353-354.

[5] See John Ashdown-Hill- Eleanor: the secret queen (The History Press 2009) at pages 99-116 for intriguing speculation about when and where Edward and Eleanor met, became lovers and were secretly married. See also Peter A Hancock – Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (The History Press 2011) at 33-43 for an alternative theory about Eleanor and Edward’s marriage. Like all conjecture these are based on inferences drawn from the surrounding circumstances, which may or may not be true. Though both theories are conceivable they differ considerably in their detail, which suggests that at least one of them may be wrong.

[6]. Sir James Gairdner – History of the Life and Reign of Richard III (Longman Green 1878) at pages 113-115.

[7] Sir Clement Markham –Richard III: his life and character (Alex Struick 2013 paperback edition) at page 101.

[8]. Stallworth’s correspondence is helpfully reproduced in full in Peter A Hancock- Richard III and the murder in the Tower – (The History Press 2011) at Appendix 1, pages 158-59.

[9]. Michael Hicks -Robert Stillington BNG entry.

[10] Paul Murray Kendal – Richard the Third (Geo Allen & Unwin 1955) at pages 217-219 and the note 14, page 475; this contains an excellent analysis of Stillington’s reliability as a witness.

[11]. See MA Hicks – False, Fleeting, Perjured Clarence (Alan Sutton 1980) at pages 163-164; and Dr John Ashdown-Hill – The Third Plantagenet (The History Press) at pages 138-146. There is speculation that Stillington had earlier told George Duke of Clarence about the pre-contract, which was the secret reason for Clarence’s execution in 1478. Both Hicks and Ashdown-Hill demolish that theory, though they differ from each other in their explanation of what happened. Personally, I think that the words ‘prejudicial’ uttered by Stillington are much more likely to have been an objection to the lack of ‘due process’ at Clarence’s trial.

[12]. I am not going into the detail of the legal and political problems of king Richard’s constitutional title. I hope to deal with those issues and Titular Regius in another essay.

[13]. See Rotuli Parliamenterum AD1485, 1 Henry VII. The language of Henry’s Act repealing king Richard’s Titular Regius is revealing. First: “ That the original be destroyed and that any copies should be either destroyed or returned to Parliament on pain of fine or imprisonment.” And in case that was not clear enough, second: “ That the said Bill, Act and Record be annulled and utterly destroyed, and that it be ordained by the said authority that the said Act be taken out of the Roll of Parliament and be cancelled, burned and be put into oblivion.” See also R.E. Horrox – Henry VII Parliament, November 1485 in Parliamentary Rolls of Medieval England (ed C. Given-Wilson), 16 volumes, Vol XV at pages 97 and 328; and Nicholas Pronay et al – Parliamentary Texts of the Late Middle Ages (Clarendon, Oxford 1980) at page 186 (“A Colchester Account of Proceedings in Parliament 1485, by representatives of the Borough of Colchester Thomas Christmas and John Vertue’). This latter (diary) account contains an interesting entry for Wednesday the 15 November 1485, the sixth day of parliament: “there ware qwestionns moved for the commonwel of thise false persons whiche hath reyned many dayes amongs us, and (non) conclusion”. This entry also appears in the appendix of PROME but not in the Roll itself: is it an oblique reference to the discussion surrounding Henry’s Act?

[14]. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (editors) – The Crowland Chronicle continuations 1459-1486 (Richard III and Yorkist History Trust 1986) at page 153.

[15]. Dominic Mancini – The Usurpation of King Richard III (AJ Armstrong, editor) (Oxford 1969 ed) at page 67.

[16]. Gairdner at page 115.


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

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

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

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

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

This sickly land might solace as before.”

(William Shakespeare – Richard the Third)

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

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

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

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

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

‘ Tis time to speak my pains are quite forgot’

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

 ‘…the guilty kindred of the queen…’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[7]. Crowland at page 155

[8]. Mancini at page 73

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

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

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

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

Not to be missed …

John Ashdown-Hill’s piece in “History Extra”, defusing a few persistent myths:

Elizabeth Woodville/Wydeville/Widville and her woes.

Elsewhere, Arlene Okerlund had posted a very interesting blog post about Elizabeth Woodville.

The post emphasises the suffering Elizabeth endured and her many losses. It would be inhuman to deny that suffering, although it must be pointed out that such trials were not unique to this particular woman. Almost anyone from an elite family (and many much poorer individuals) suffered as a result of the Wars of the Roses. To give but two examples (both women) Cecily Neville suffered the violent death of her husband and all but one of her sons (Edward IV). Indeed she had to endure the spectacle of one of her sons judicially murdering another. As for Margaret of Anjou – frankly, she would probably have regarded Elizabeth Woodville’s experiences as a comparative rest cure.

The question arises, perhaps, of how much did Elizabeth Woodville bring upon herself. Was she entirely a passive victim of fate? It seems unlikely. Something was going on in 1483. Her brother Anthony was checking his authority to raise forces in the Marches, and inserting a deputy into the Tower without apparently gaining the King’s approval. A large force – 2,000 men no less – was gathered to bring Edward V from Ludlow to London, through a tranquil land where there had been no serious fighting for fourteen years. (The force would have been still bigger had it not been for Hastings’ objections.) Edward Woodville, having apparently ‘borrowed’ a large sum from the Tower, was at sea, among other things looting a treasure ship at Southampton. Put all this together, with Dorset’s reported remark that his family was strong enough in council to do as they wished without the Duke of Gloucester, and it all begins to smell strongly of a coup. Elizabeth’s own actions, in fleeing into Westminster Sanctuary – knocking the odd wall down in the process to accommodate her possessions – also smack of a guilty conscience.

It is one of the great ‘what ifs’ of English history to speculate on what might have happened had Elizabeth kept her nerve. She was the recognised Queen of England, and there was no precedent in English history (with the exception of Maud de Braose several centuries earlier) for anything worse than imprisonment to befall an English noblewoman. (Even that was relatively rare.) In effect, Elizabeth imprisoned herself, and in doing so abandoned all her influence and position. Had she stood her ground, she could have made Richard of Gloucester’s position a lot more awkward. (If she was worried about the fate of her younger son, or her daughters, she could easily have followed good Yorkist precedent and sent them off to Aunt Margaret in Burgundy. It was not as if, during the days when she was waiting for Richard, she had no access to shipping. As mentioned above, her son Edward was acting (albeit under questionable authority) as Vice-Admiral of England.

To have real sympathy for Elizabeth in this situation, you have to believe that Richard was an unmitigated villain who would have behaved as he did no matter how Elizabeth and the other Woodvilles had conducted themselves. This is perhaps a rather extreme version of events, and one that views Elizabeth and her family as rather helpless little creatures in an evil world, rather than a tight-knit group of political men and women who were busy playing their own cards.

Okerlund makes quite a convincing case for a benign explanation of Elizabeth’s retirement from the world in 1487. Many historians agree with this interpretation. However, what it does not explain is the simultanious imprisonment of Elizabeth’s son, Dorset, in the Tower of London. Dorset certainly did not go there to pray, and the most likely explanation is that, however irrationally, Henry VII considered him a potential supporter of ‘Lambert Simnel’. By extension, it is not unreasonable to infer that he held the same suspicions of his mother-in-law. Moreover, Bermondsey, where she was lodged, was a male monastery. Would not a religious woman, seeking spiritual solace, prefer a female house, like the Minories?

This of course begs another huge question. Why should Dorset wish to put Warwick on the throne in order to depose his own half-sister? It beggars belief. It would only begin to make sense if Lambert Simnel was, or was believed to be, the proxy for one of Elizabeth’s sons. The only other explanation that makes sense (in the case of Dorset) was that Henry VII was absurdly paranoid.

One final point. Henry VII’s allowance to his mother-in-law, whom he recognised as Queen Dowager, was rather smaller than that paid by her supposed enemy, Richard III, who regarded her as plain Dame Elizabeth Grey. Very strange, do you not think?

The Strange Case of Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset

Thomas Grey was the elder son of Elizabeth Woodville by her first husband Sir John Grey of Groby. Not unnaturally, once his mother married King Edward IV, Thomas’ position in society improved markedly and he became prominent at court, eventually being created Marquess of Dorset. In addition he made successive marriages to heiresses, Anne Holland and Cecily Bonville, and was very nicely placed when his stepfather died.

He is credited with an unfortunate boast that the Council could manage and decide policy without the Duke of Gloucester. Events proved otherwise. After initially taking sanctuary at Westminster with his mother, Grey managed to escape, and despite Richard III’s attempts to capture him, fled to Brittany where he joined Henry Tudor’s miscellaneous collection of misfits, traitors and exiles. He then followed Tudor to France, where something very surprising happened.

Elizabeth Woodville had made her peace with Richard III, and now she apparently contacted Grey and told him to come home, presumably with the approval and good will of the King. What is surprising is that Grey immediately defected from Tudor’s ‘court’ and attempted to return to England. He was however captured near Compiègne and held at Paris where he remained as ‘security’ for loans advanced to Tudor by the French. He was not, therefore ‘available’ for the Battle of Bosworth.

Now it is absolutely certain that Richard had executed Grey’s Uncle Anthony Rivers, and his full brother, Sir Richard Grey. According to some people he did so for no particular reason. The same people are convinced that Richard also murdered Grey’s half-brothers the ‘Princes in the Tower’. So what on earth, if this was so, was Grey thinking about? It is sometimes argued that Elizabeth Woodville had ‘no choice’ but to come to terms with Richard III, who was apparently firmly established as King. (The same people will tell you in the next breath that Richard’s position was fragile.) Now this might be true as far as she was concerned, but it was certainly not true in the case of Grey, who was safe in France. In his position would a wise man not have thought that his mother was writing under duress? What on earth would have possessed Grey to return to the court of a man who had supposedly killed four of his nearest male relatives for no particular reason? Was he suicidal? Was Tudor’s breath really that bad?

An alternative view might be that Grey had received ‘new evidence’. Perhaps he knew very well that his uncle and brother had been plotting against Richard, and that their deaths were therefore ‘fair game’. Perhaps he now learned that his half-brothers were alive and well, or that someone other than Richard had killed them. Would this not make his course of action seem more reasonable?

Be that as it may, it is certain that Henry Tudor never trusted Grey again. At the time of the Lambert Simnel Rising, Grey was shut up in the Tower. Why? Why should Henry VII suppose that Grey would wish to depose his own half-sister, Elizabeth of York, to set up the son of Warwick, a noted family enemy? It simply does not make sense as presented. Even if we assume Elizabeth Woodville retired to Bermondsey voluntarily, gleefully shedding the responsibility for her lands at the same time, it is certain that Grey did not enter the Tower for a time of prayer and reflection.

Even in 1492, when Grey accompanied Henry to France, he was forced to declare in writing that he would not commit treason. Why on earth should this have been suspected of him? Asking a nobleman to sign a promise not to commit treason was certainly a rare distinction, if not a unique one. It really demonstrates that Grey was one step away from the Tower for the rest of his life.

Feel free to produce reasons for Henry’s distrust of Grey that do not challenge the ‘accepted version of events.’ I can’t think of any myself.


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