Post-classical history




The normally cynical Philippe de Commynes was impressed that Lord Hastings should have remained faithful to his master despite being married to the Earl of Warwick’s sister. Lord Oxford was his brother-in-law as well. However, William was much too loyal to contemplate changing sides, and in any case he was far too closely identified with Edward IV’s regime.

When Edward’s three little vessels sailed out from King’s Lynn into the North Sea in September 1470, besides William they carried Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, the King’s eighteen-year-old brother, and the new Lord Rivers, who was the Queen’s brother, together with knights and squires. Commynes, who met some of the party shortly after, says that they did not have a penny between them and had very little idea of where they were going. Chased by Hanseatic ships – Hansards hated Englishmen as pirates who seized their goods – they were lucky to reach the Frisian port of Alkmaar. Edward gave the skipper of his boat a coat lined with marten fur (the sable of fifteenth-century England), promising to pay him at a later date. ‘There never was such a beggarly company,’ observes Commynes. Their only clothes were those in which they had been campaigning.


Louis de Gruuthuse’s mansion at Bruges (now the Gruuthuse Museum) where the exiled Hastings spent several months in 1470–71.

Luckily for Edward IV, the Governor of Holland happened to be at Alkmaar. This was Louis de Bruges, Seigneur de Gruuthuse, who had been on embassies to England and had pleasant memories of the Yorkist court. He forbade the Hansards to attack the King, going on board his ship to welcome him. Gruuthuse then provided Edward with a wardrobe and money, before escorting him to suitably splendid accommodation in Bruges and The Hague.

Burgundy was the most opulent state in northern Europe. Belonging to a junior branch of the French royal family, its dukes derived their title from the duchy and county of Burgundy in eastern France, but their wealth came from what are now Belgium and the Netherlands. The magnificent Burgundian court spent most of its time in Flanders, Brabant or Ghent.

Throughout the Wars of the Roses Burgundy played a vital role in English affairs, both as a potential ally against France and as a source of support for York or Lancaster. Moreover, commercial relations were of vital importance to English merchants, who sold most of their wool and other goods in Flanders, which was the source of many English luxuries.

The two Dukes of Burgundy during this period were Philip the Good, who died in 1467, and his son Charles the Bold. Their attitude towards England was practical enough. When Parliament had passed legislation in 1463 restricting Burgundian imports, Duke Philip responded with a potentially ruinous embargo on English cloth. The ensuing trade war ended in 1467 with a sensible commercial treaty, while Duke Charles married Edward’s sister Margaret the following year. Hastings played a full part in the negotiations, as a member of several embassies.

Duke Charles was perplexed by the news that King Edward had arrived in his domains. Closely related to Henry VI, Charles had always been inclined to sympathize with the Lancastrians, paying pensions to the Dukes of Somerset and Exeter – who were still in Flanders at the end of 1470, pestering him to help Henry. On the other hand Edward was his brother-in-law and both belonged to each other’s orders, the King wearing the Golden Fleece and the Duke the Garter. Charles did not know whom to support. He compromised, sending Commynes to Calais to offer congratulations on Henry VI’s restoration while paying Edward a pension of 500 crowns a month. For the moment the Yorkist exiles had to kick their heels.

King Edward and his followers were able to maintain at least the semblance of a royal court. It seems that during their exile, Jean, Seigneur de Forestel, otherwise styled ‘The Bastard of Waurin’, presented the King with a copy of his rambling but surprisingly well-informed Recueil des Croniques et Anchiennes Istories de la Grant Bretagne. There is reason to think that Waurin’s presentation took place in January or February 1471, when the King was staying with Gruuthuse. A miniature in a manuscript of the first volume of the Recueil dating from about this time shows Waurin kneeling before Edward in what appears to be a makeshift throne-room; the throne and its canopy look as if they have been improvised while a curtain hangs untidily over an open door. In addition to the King and Waurin, four courtiers are shown, two of whom are wearing the Garter; the nobleman in the left foreground with a sharp, sour face may be the Duke of Gloucester and the other on the right Lord Hastings. It is possible therefore that the miniature in theRecueil contains the only known contemporary likeness of William – apart, perhaps, from that grinning caricature in the sketch of his man-tiger.1

The exiled Yorkist court spent most of its time in Bruges or The Hague. The ‘culture shock’ for William Hastings would have been considerable. Although known to have visited St Omer in Artois on an embassy during the mid-1460s, he cannot previously have encountered Burgundian civilization at its most luxurious. Built on the banks of canals, Bruges (then the capital of Flanders) was a northern Venice, one of the richest and most cosmopolitan cities in Europe, a trading emporium and banking centre where Hanseaticmerchants met their Italian counterparts. Fortunately, much of the city survives as it was in William’s time, including the beautiful house at the far end of the Djiver canal, where he and his king stayed with the Seigneur de Gruuthuse – today the ‘Gruuthuse museum’.

William Hastings must have seen truly wonderful pictures during his exile. The greatest of the painters then working in Bruges was the Flemish master Hans Memling, whose works could be viewed without difficulty in the city’s churches or at the hospital of St John, impressing men by their dignified piety and their amazingly realistic detail. Indeed, William’s brother-in-law, John Donne, thought so much of them that at some later date during the 1470s he would commission Memling to paint a tryptich of which the centre panel depicts not only the Virgin and Child but also the donor and his wife Elizabeth (née Hastings) with their little daughter Anne. A handsome couple, John and Elizabeth each wear a Yorkist collar of suns and roses from which hangs the white lion emblem of the Earls of March.2

The portrait of John Donne is the first realistic likeness of a Welshman to survive. We do not know if he was among the exiles who had fled to Flanders with the King but it is very likely, since he was a committed supporter of Edward IV and had been with him during the Lincolnshire campaign. Ross calls Donne a ‘vigorous Yorkist civil servant’, and after the death of Lord Pembroke (William Herbert) he had controlled the entire south-west of Wales as steward of all the main castles.

Lord Hastings also saw the illuminated manuscripts, which were a Burgundian speciality. Written on vellum, adorned with miniatures painted in brilliant colours and set off by gold leaf, these gem-like productions are among the most beautiful and attractive of all medieval art forms, seemingly more like jewels than books. They had reached their apogee in fifteenth-century Burgundy. King Edward began to collect them after his exile, William himself acquiring a fine book of hours.

Music was another Burgundian marvel, one celebrated musician in the ducal household being an Englishman, Robert Morton – no relation of the doctor, despite his name.

The spectacular Burgundian court was especially impressive. Financed by the riches of the Low Countries, it was the most dazzling in all Europe, famed for arrogant pomp and splendour. Amid a devout silence, the Duke took his meals with a ceremony verging on the liturgical, attended by courtiers who were dressed with breathtaking magnificence – though no one dared to be as magnificent as the Duke. Its banquets and entertainments were among the most fantastic known to history.3 Sometimes the Dance Macabre, the Dance of the Dead, was enacted before the court by players dressed as skeletons. (‘If we could form an idea of the effect produced by such a dance, with vague lights and shadows gliding over the moving figures, we should no doubt be better able to understand the horror,’ comments Huizinga.)

As a Knight of the Garter William must have admired the Order of the Golden Fleece, described by one English historian as ‘a kind of Burgundian Garter’. It was generally regarded as the most illustrious order of chivalry in Christendom and had been created with the specific purpose of outshining the Garter. Although William is unlikely to have attended its ceremonies, he certainly met its knights, ‘belonging to the most ancient nobility’, who wore its badge of a golden sheepskin around a fiery flintstone. Gruuthuse was among them.

Commynes tells us that Duke Charles had first been informed that Edward was dead, which ‘did not disturb him greatly’. The King was a thoroughly unwelcome guest. Charles’s priority was an alliance against France with whoever ruled England, and he began making diplomatic overtures to Warwick. Since he had been so hospitable to Somerset and Exeter, he assumed that it would not be too difficult to reach an agreement with the restored Lancastrian regime. Even though he paid Edward a pension, he refused to see him.

At first the Yorkists’ position appeared desperate. Despite Warwick’s difficulties, many in England welcomed the Readeption. If Henry VI was only a figurehead, he was an anointed king, while his seventeen-year-old son, Edward of Lancaster, could be expected to succeed him in the not too distant future. By all accounts the young man was a worthy grandson of Henry V, handsome, intelligent and warlike. It was therefore imperative for Edward of York to return to England as soon as he could. But it looked as though Charles would not allow him to leave Burgundy, let alone launch an invasion.

Fortunately for the Yorkists, the Earl of Warwick – who for some reason detested Duke Charles – stayed loyal to Louis XI and rebuffed the Burgundian overtures. What made this a disastrous decision was the French King’s declaration of war on Burgundy early in December 1470. Determined to stop Warwick from sending English troops to Louis’s aid, Charles invited Edward to meet him at Aire on 2 January 1471. A few days later they met again at St Pol-sur-Turnoise. Still hoping that Exeter would persuade the Readeption government not to support the French, in public Charles forbade his subjects from helping Edward. In private, however, he gave him £20,000 with four ships. The English merchant community in Bruges lent the King further sums, so that he was able to hire fourteen Hanseatic vessels while others were found at Bruges. At the same time, he warned his supporters at home to be ready to expect him.

William appears to have sent similar messages to all his well-wishers in the Midlands. Helped by Commynes, he had struck up a lasting friendship with Charles of Burgundy, which says a good deal for his tact, since the Duke was not the easiest of men. Charles gave him a pension and, according to Commynes, William continued to be a keen advocate of an Anglo-Burgundian alliance, both while Charles was alive and after his death.

The Yorkist invasion fleet assembled at Flushing, thirty-six vessels in all. They cannot have been very large since they had only to carry a force of about 1,200 troops. As chamberlain, Lord Hastings would have embarked with the King on board the Antony of Zeeland, lent by Gruuthuse’s father-in-law.

Luckily for Edward IV, the Earl of Warwick’s inability to raise money prevented him from blockading the port of Flushing, though the King was delayed there for nine days by unfavourable winds. He sailed out, bound for Norfolk, on 11 March 1471. His ‘invasion’ looked like a very forlorn hope indeed.

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