Post-classical history




‘My lord’, wrote Sir John Fortescue on 13 December 1464 to the Earl of Ormond, ‘here beeth with the queen, the dukes of Exeter and Somerset, and his brother which – and also Sir John Courtenay – beeth descended from the House of Lancaster. Also here beeth my lord Privy Seal Dr John Morton . . .’ Fortescue then names half a dozen knights, adding that there are many ‘worshipful squires and also clerks’. Most of these had fled from Scotland across the North Sea in July, packed into little sailing barges.

They had found shelter in Lorraine at the château of Koeur-la-Petite near St Mihiel-sur-Bar, on the right bank of the Meuse not far from Commercy. The château belonged to Margaret of Anjou’s father, the ‘bon roi Réné’, titular king of Naples, who gave her 6,000 French crowns a year, her sole income. ‘We beeth all in great poverty, but yet the queen sustaineth us in meat and drink, so as we beeth not in extreme necessity,’ Sir John told Lord Ormond. ‘Her Highness may do no more to us than she doth.’ He continued sadly, ‘in all this country is no man that will or may lend you any money, have ye never so great need.’ Koeur was the Lancastrian court in exile, a precursor of the Jacobite St Germain. Although the rightful king was still skulking amid the wild Cumbrian hills, a Prince of Wales ‘over the water’ lived here with his mother.

In 1465 Harry Holland, Duke of Exeter, grew bored with Koeur and went to Bruges, where Commynes saw him walking barefoot behind he Duke of Burgundy’s train, and begging his bread from door to door without revealing who he was. The nobleman, who once had never ridden out with less than 200 horsemen, can have found little to eat if, as in English towns, from a quarter to a third of the inhabitants of Bruges were destitute. Meanwhile, at home his duchess Anne had obtained possession of all his estates and was living with her lover, Thomas St Leger, in the Duke’s favourite manor of Dartington. Luckily for Exeter, he was recognized and given a small pension.

Exeter had followed Edmund Beaufort to Bruges. Edmund, who since the beheading of his brother at Hexham styled himself Duke of Somerset, had left England with his brother John Beaufort and come by way of Paris to Koeur, arriving in the autumn of 1464. He then joined the army of the future Duke Charles of Burgundy in the War of the Public Weal against King Louis, during the summer of 1465. He lived at Bruges briefly but soon attached himself to the Burgundian court. However, when Charles married Edward IV’s sister, he told Somerset and Exeter to keep away from his court to avoid embarrassment; William Paston reported from the court at Bruges that Somerset had gone back ‘to Queen Margaret that was, and shall no more come here again, nor be helpen by the duke’. In reality, Somerset and Exeter never returned to Koeur, though they always stayed in close contact with the Queen, while Charles continued to pay them pensions discreetly – he did not forget his close kinship with the House of Lancaster.

Depressing news from England had reached the exiles during the summer of 1465. King Henry had been captured in Lancashire after wandering for over a year from refuge to refuge in the wild fastnesses of northern England. Betrayed by a monk and chased from his dinner at the house of a sympathizer not far from Clitheroe, he was caught in a wood near a ford through the Ribble called Bungerly Hippingstones, deserted by all save two priests and a groom. In Sir John Fortescue’s words, ‘he fell into the bloody hands of his deadly enemies, his own subjects’. His feet tied to his stirrups beneath the belly of his horse, a battered straw hat on his head, the former King of England was paraded through Cheapside and Cornhill on his way to imprisonment in the Tower of London. He was led by Ralph Hastings, until recently Keeper of the Lions, an irony that is unlikely to have escaped the London crowds. He would spend the next five years in not uncomfortable captivity in the Tower, where he was even allowed visitors. Henry’s life would be perfectly safe as long as his son stayed alive.

Despite being over seventy, a very great age in those days, the Lancastrian ‘Lord Chancellor’ Sir John Fortescue was Queen Margaret’s chief adviser. He bombarded Louis XI with letters and memoranda, whose constant refrain was that Edward IV intended to invade France and that the only way to stop him was to put Henry VI back on the English throne. The Queen harped on the same tune, writing to Louis in 1465, in a burst of wishful thinking, that fighting had already broken out between Warwick and Edward. According to Milanese sources, her brother the Duke of Calabria, when dining with the French King early in 1467, told him that as he was so fond of the Earl of Warwick he ought to try to restore Margaret and be certain of peace with England.1

In addition, Fortescue – he describes himself as ‘a certain ancient knight, being Chancellor to the King of England, who also in that miserable time did there remain in exile’ – was educating the Prince of Wales. For the boy’s benefit he wrote his famous book De laudibus legum Angliae which, while extolling the Common Law, is a nostalgic paean in praise of English life as a whole and of how fortunate its people are when compared with those of France. It is also a work of propaganda. ‘During the cruel rage of the late mortal wars within the realm of England when the most virtuous and godly King Henry VI . . . was forced to fly the land’ are its opening words.

Dr Morton, a colleague since the Parliament of Devils, no doubt collaborated with Sir John in diplomatic affairs and in writing the De laudibus. Fortescue recalls ‘when I was abiding in Paris’, and it is quite possible that Morton was there with him. Perhaps the pair used ‘Law French’, still a written language at home if full of archaicisms and English words, to communicate with the locals (As late as the 1730s a former Lord Chancellor said that some English law could only be understood by reading it in French.) In any case, both spoke Latin – the language of diplomacy.

A supporter even more aged than Fortescue arrived at Koeur in 1464 – George Ashby, who had been born in 1390 and was a former Keeper of the Signet to Henry VI and Queen Margaret. He had spent the previous year in the Fleet prison. He says he was

Writing to their signet full forty year,
As well beyond the sea as on this side

He wrote a poem, ‘The Active Policy of a Prince’ for Prince Edward’s edification, exhorting him to live on his revenues when king – hinting that he must avoid his father’s mistakes.

Other leading members of the circle at Koeur-la-Petite were Thomas Bird, formerly Bishop of St Aasaph, a shadowy figure whom Edward IV had deprived of his see, and three knights from the old Lancastrian court. These were Sir William Vaux, Sir Robert Whittingham, and Sir Edmund Hampden (the Prince’s chamberlain). The first two had married ladies of the Queen’s household in the days of her prosperity, while Hampden had been her carver. The exiled court’s numbers never seem to have sunk below fifty.

Clearly Margaret of Anjou inspired deep loyalty. Her courage verged on the sublime. She had endured terrible defeats, had suffered storms and shipwreck, had fallen into the hands of brigands. She was so poor when she arrived in Flanders that she had to travel to the Burgundian court in a farm cart, dressed in rags – knowing that Yorkist agents were planning an ambush. But nothing could shake her determination to rescue her son’s heritage.

Edward, Prince of Wales was handsome, intelligent and bloodthirsty. In 1467 the Duke of Milan was informed that ‘This boy though still only thirteen years of age, talks of nothing but cutting off heads or making war.’ He ‘applied himself wholly to feats of arms, much delighting to ride upon wild and unbroken horses, not sparing with spurs to break their fierceness,’ says Fortescue, who knew him well. ‘He practised also sometimes with the pike, sometimes with the sword . . .’ Sir John adds, a little apologetically, that it was only natural for him to give his sparring partners such savage blows. However, Edward of Lancaster was not always well and had been so dangerously ill during the previous year that after his recovery Queen Margaret had gone on pilgrimage to give thanks at the shrine near Nancy of St Nicholas de Port – the patron saint of Lorraine.

Sir John Fortescue regularly sent ‘writings’ to England, which depicted the cause of Lancaster as that of firm, honest and, above all, law-abiding government. He had realized that the Queen’s policy of relying on foreign aid alone, for the French and Scots to restore her husband by force of arms, was simply not enough. The Yorkists had triumphed in 1460–61 after systematically exploiting discontent at both national and local level over a long period, and then turning it into organized rebellion under their leadership. The Lancastrians must learn to do the same.

Beyond question, by the end of the decade there was plenty of fresh discontent in England. Law and order were breaking down all over again, just as they had done under Henry VI; King Edward had failed to provide the reform he had promised and Yorkist magnates were exploiting their powers ruthlessly. In the eyes of many, the Woodvilles and their friends had inherited the mantle of King Henry’s greedy court party. When Edward approved a programme to rebuild the City’s walls in 1467 – Mr Alderman Lambert contributed 8s 4d – it undoubtedly reflected an atmosphere of growing uneasiness.

At the same time, more than a few observers must have seen the menacing implications for the future of that ever-widening rift between the Earl of Warwick and Edward IV. An increasing number of Englishmen – just how many will never be known – began to communicate with Queen Margaret and the Duke of Somerset, if only because they wanted to hedge their bets against a far from inconceivable change of regime. There were also those secret Lancastrian diehards who had never gone into exile, and some of them were among the very greatest in the land.

Meanwhile, there was mounting hope at Koeur-la-Petite. So shrewd a judge of human nature as John Morton must surely have listened with fascination to reports of the growing resentment of quite such an arrogant and over-mighty subject as the Earl of Warwick.

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