JOHN MORTON • THE EARL OF OXFORD
On 3 October 1470 an agent of the Earl of Warwick, Sir Geoffrey Gate, secured the surrender of the Tower of London. On 5 October, having escaped from confinement, Archbishop Nevill entered the City and installed a new garrison loyal to his brother. The next day Warwick himself marched in. Dr Warkworth tells us the Earl
went to the Tower of London where King Harry was in prison by King Edward’s commandment, and there took him from his keepers, which was not worshipfully arrayed as a prince, and not so cleanly kept as should seem such a prince; they had him out, and new arrayed him, and did to him great reverence, and brought him to the palace of Westminster, and so he was restored to the crown again . . .
Henry VI was in no doubt as to whom he owed his restoration. He was grateful not only to Warwick and Clarence but also to Lord Oxford. A royal warrant stated that his return to the throne was ‘by the favour and true acquittal of our right entirely and well beloved cousins, duke of Clarence, earls of Warwick and Oxenford’. Unlike the first two, Oxford was no renegade Yorkist but known to all as a Lancastrian diehard whose family had suffered tragically for its loyalty. He was appointed steward of the household and Constable of England.
Exactly a week after the arrival of the ‘kingmaker’ in London, Henry had the crown replaced on his meek head at St Paul’s Cathedral. During the ceremony Lord Oxford bore the sword of state. The old King was reinstalled in the royal apartments at Westminster as though Towton had never been fought or lost. A newly appointed master of the Mint (replacing William Hastings) struck an entire new coinage of gold and silver with Henry’s name. His restoration was officially described as ‘our readeption of our royal power’ – a phrase that had surely been coined by Sir John Fortescue, no doubt in consultation with his learned friend Dr Morton. The power lay of course in the hands of the Earl of Warwick, who styled himself ‘Lieutenant to our sovereign lord, King Henry the Sixth’.
Dr Morton had accompanied Warwick from Angers, crossing the Channel with his invasion fleet and landing at Dartmouth on 13 September. On hearing of the flight of the former Edward IV, he hurried up to London with Fortescue; there was a mass of business for them to prepare before Parliament met. When it did so on 20 November, it was addressed by Archbishop Nevill, who had been reappointed Lord Chancellor. He took for his text a verse from Jeremiah: ‘Return, O ye revolting children, saith the Lord, for I am your husband: and I will take you, one of a city, and two of a kindred, and will bring you into Sion.’ Parliament then reversed the attainders against Lancastrians, though it did not give them back their estates – presumably much to the relief of Mr Lambert.
John Morton found an old friend in London, Dr Mackerell. Captured about a year before, when on a secret mission to Norfolk, he had made his peace with Edward IV a little too soon; on 27 November 1469 a pardon had been issued to ‘Master Ralph Mackerell, clerk, doctor of either law’. He was forgiven this embarrassing error of judgement and appointed chancellor of Queen Margaret’s household, soon receiving preferment – a prebendary’s stall in the King’s Chapel of St Steven at Westminster and the living of Bottesford in Lincolnshire. The claims of Dr Morton and Dr Mackerell were easy enough to satisfy, unlike those of the exiled peers and gentry.
Despite his impressive offices of lieutenant and protector of the realm, and Captain of Calais, Warwick was in a nightmarish situation. He was lieutenant only until the arrival of the Lancastrian Prince of Wales, which might be at any moment, while he knew very well that the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter hated him; although now on the same side, they still had many old scores to settle. He dared not restore confiscated estates to their former Lancastrian owners for fear of antagonizing their new occupants. The Earl was also aware that Edward IV was bound to fight for the Crown – his wife, in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, had just given birth to a Yorkist Prince of Wales.
In mid-February 1471, according to Warkworth, Somerset and Exeter ‘with many other knights and squires, gentlemen and yeomen came into England and entered their lordships and lands’. But they can only have done so on a very limited scale since the sole lands available legally were those taken from King Edward and the Duke of Gloucester, though they may have seized some others by force. The Duke of Exeter, the former beggar of Bruges, reinstalled himself in his vast City mansion, the Coldharbour. He can scarcely have been overjoyed to learn that on 2 January Warwick had once again become Lord High Admiral of England – the post in which the Earl had replaced him so humiliatingly during the 1450s.
From being the King’s brother, let alone a king in waiting, the Duke of Clarence was demoted into a distant, distrusted cousin of the restored royal family, who would have to surrender enormous tracts of territory to the returned exiles. He had his work cut out to regain his former office of Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. No doubt he might have been recognized by Parliament as heir to the throne should Edward of Lancaster die childless, but even in the event of that unlikely contingency he knew that the Lancastrians would never accept him. Sooner or later they would bring about his destruction.1
When he had begun to plot with Warwick in 1468–69, Clarence can never have envisaged a Lancastrian restoration or such humiliation. Many of his kindred and friends were trying to reconcile him with Edward; among them were his mother, his three sisters (the Duchesses of Burgundy, Exeter and Suffolk), and Lord Hastings. Even when Clarence was at Calais, so Commynes reports, a lady-in-waiting came to his duchess with a secret message for him from Edward, begging the Duke not to ruin their family, warning that Warwick would never make him king after marrying his other daughter to the Lancastrian Prince of Wales. She was so persuasive – Commynes comments ‘she was no fool’ – that Clarence promised her that he would go over to his brother’s side when he returned to England.
The Readeption had started inauspiciously in the City. When it was learnt that Edward had fled the country, uproar ensued. Prison gates were broken down, the inmates pouring out, while the Kentish men returned. They burst into such suburbs as Radcliffe, Limehouse and St Katherine’s, setting fire to houses, plundering ale shops, raping and killing. (Down by the river and just outside the walls, the insalubrious area known as St Katherine’s held a criminal population that was always ready to riot at times like these.) Armed citizens had had to patrol the streets until Warwick and his men arrived to restore order.
Although the Earl of Warwick kept London firmly under control, well-informed citizens such as John Lambert and William Shore did not have to be clairvoyant to guess that another vicious civil war was imminent. Despite his popularity, Warwick had too many enemies, while even if Henry VI was a symbol of legality, he was also one of dispiriting incapacity. It could only be a matter of time before the exiled king attempted to regain his throne. The sanctuaries were stuffed with his supporters, who took care to spread rumours neatly calculated to damage the Lancastrian regime. At the same time, Yorkist Londoners, of whom there were plenty, reminded all their friends how bad the situation was for business.
Since the Readeption’s chances of success depended on reconciling former Yorkists with Lancastrians, of necessity there were very few reprisals. However, after moving with his retainers into William Hastings’ London house on 15 October as Constable of England, Lord Oxford had the keen pleasure of sitting in judgement on the man who had condemned his father and brother to death eight years before. This was John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester, that strange Italianate combination of scholarship and cruelty – an enthusiastic translator of Latin classics who introduced impaling into the English penal code. He was widely hated for having had the bodies of some of Warwick’s supporters skewered on stakes after they had been hanged – Fabyan, echoing City gossip, relates that he was called ‘the butcher of England’. Condemned to die by Oxford, at his own execution on Tower Hill, when the mob was baying for his blood, Tiptoft asked the headsmen to decapitate him with three strokes in honour of the Trinity.2
The Earl of Oxford had not forfeited his estates by attainder and he was soon able to make his presence felt throughout East Anglia, reinstalling himself at Castle Hedingham. In years to come he would be famous for the size of his affinity, so it is more than probable that he spent no less time on recruiting retainers than did William Hastings in the Midlands. Obviously Oxford’s ‘good lordship’ was worth having, given his influence in local affairs and in law suits. None knew this better than the Pastons, whose contested legacy of Caistor Castle had been taken from them forcibly by the Duke of Norfolk.
On 12 October 1470 John Paston wrote excitedly to his mother:
I trust that we shall do right well . . . for my lady of Norfolk hath promised to be ruled by my lord of Oxenford in all such matters as belong to my brother and to me; and as for my lord of Oxenford he is better lord to me, by my troth, than I can wish him . . . The duke and duchess sue to him as humbly as ever I did to them.
One of the architects of the Readeption and a pillar of the new regime, the Earl was in a position to dictate to John Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who had hitherto been all-powerful in the eastern counties, and also to his formidable duchess, Elizabeth – daughter of the Hundred Years’ War hero ‘Old Talbot’.
Paston continues, in the same hopeful vein, ‘My master the earl of Oxenford biddeth me ask and have. I trow my brother Sir John shall have the constableship of Norwich Castle with £20 of fees.’ The Constable of Norwich was Oxford’s unloved cousin Lord Howard, very much a committed Yorkist who had been extremely lucky to escape arrest and whose son was in sanctuary at Colchester. The Duke of Norfolk was made to return Caistor to the Pastons in December 1470. Although nothing came of their hopes of the constableship, even the calculating, money-grubbing, unwarlike Pastons were ready to fight at the Earl’s side.
Lord Oxford’s affinity was not confined to the Pastons, and must have numbered scores of retainers. No list of his indentures has survived (unlike those of William Hastings) but we can guess at the names of a few. Among the more substantial were Henry Spelman of Narborough in Norfolk,3and probably three other squires: Robert Harlyston of ‘Shymplyng’ in Suffolk, Robert Gibbon of Wingfield in the same county, and William Goodmanston of Bromley in Essex. Spelman was a former MP for Norwich (where he would later become recorder) while Goodmanston had been MP for Essex.
Unintentionally, Louis XI made further bloodshed inevitable in England, when he declared war on Burgundy in December and then insisted that Warwick do the same. English merchants were horrified by this threat to commercial interests in the Low Countries. The Earl found it very difficult to raise money for the war in the City.
Soon all England was once more in the grip of invasion fever. Oxford placed his brother Thomas de Vere in charge of coastal defence in East Anglia, where a Yorkist landing seemed most likely. On 14 March, writing from Hedingham, the Earl congratulated Thomas after receiving a letter from him about the measures he had taken – ‘by which I understand the faithful guiding and disposition of the country, to my great comfort and pleasure’. He adds that he himself has collected all the troops he can in Essex, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire and is marching towards Norfolk, in case Edward and his army has arrived there but that he will go to the north if Edward arrives in the north ‘to follow and pursue him.’
Five days later we find Lord Oxford writing from Bury St Edmunds ‘To my right trusty and well beloved Henry Spelman, Thos. Seyve, John Seyve, James Radcliff, John Brampton the older, and to each of them’, that
I have credible tidings that the king’s great enemies and rebels, accompanied with enemies strangers [foreigners] be now arrived and landed in the north parts of this his land . . . I straitly charge and command you, and in mine own behalf heartily desire and pray you, that all excuses laid apart, ye and each of you in your own persons defensibly arrayed, with as many men as ye may goodly make, be on Friday next coming at Lynn, and so forth to Newark . . .
Lord Hastings was busy sending similar letters to his own well-wishers, urging them to join him fully armed and with as many troops as they could bring.
Edward had indeed arrived.