Post-classical history

31

LORD OXFORD
TRIES TO DROWN HIMSELF, 1478

LORD OXFORD • LORD HASTINGS

The Duke of Clarence, no further to achieving his vague, ill-thought-out ambition of supplanting Edward on the throne, and still bitterly resentful at having to share the Warwick inheritance with Gloucester, had grown even more discontented. From the King’s point of view Clarence had become an unmitigated nuisance. Most brothers would never have forgiven him for the part he had played during the Readeption, yet he was wholly without gratitude for Edward’s magnanimity.

While beginning to grow popular, the King was aware that in some quarters there was a certain irreducible amount of dissatisfaction with his rule, though no open opposition. Many people disliked his uncomfortably efficient ways in financial matters, but they were unavoidable. Anxious to avoid stirring up discontent by direct taxation, he was determined to ‘live of his own’ – on Crown revenues.

The Croyland chronicler describes Edward’s methods:

Having called Parliament together, he resumed possession of nearly all the royal estates [those Crown lands given to favourites] without regard to those to whom they had been granted, and applied the whole thereof to support the expenses of the Crown . . . He also examined the register and rolls of Chancery and exacted heavy fines from those whom he found to have taken possession of estates without prosecuting their rights in form required by law.

The King was rigorous in enforcing the irksome dues on wardships and marriages, while he levied Customs duties with such harshness that there was considerable grumbling from the merchant community.

Fortunately for Edward, there was no one to challenge him. His only possible rival was the Duke of Clarence, whose character and record did not exactly encourage potential supporters. But then the Duke’s nuisance value was exacerbated by totally unexpected problems overseas.

For a short time it really did seem that the inglorious expedition of 1475 meant lasting peace abroad. Determined to endear himself to the English court, Louis XI sent no less than 700,000 tuns of the best French wines procurable for Christmas 1476. However, news came in January that Duke Charles had been killed in battle by the Swiss, his successor being an only daughter by a previous marriage. It was the beginning of the end for Valois Burgundy, England’s traditional ally against France.

Writing on 14 February from London to his brother in Norwich, Sir John Paston reported the general alarm:

Yesterday began the great council, to which all the estates of the land shall come to, but it be for great and reasonable excuses; and I suppose the chief cause of this assembly is to commune what is best to do now upon the great change by the death of the duke of Burgundy, and for the keeping of Calais and the Marches, and for the preservation of the amities taken late, as well with France as now with the members of Flanders; whereto I doubt not there shall be in all haste both the dukes of Clarence and Gloucester . . . this day I hear great likelihood that my lord Hastings shall hastily go to Calais with great company . . . It seemeth that all the world is quavering.1

Hastings rushed across the Channel to Calais, which ‘stood in great jeopardy and peril for sundry encounters and comings of our enemies thither and there about’. Even so, his great company consisted of a mere sixteen men-at-arms and 500 archers.

Then, for a moment, William fell victim to the machinations of Louis XI, who with his customary deviousness was trying to estrange Edward and his sister Margaret, the dowager Duchess of Burgundy, together with as many of the Plantagenets and their courtiers as possible. On his instructions the French ambassador, Olivier de Roux, insinuated that Margaret was scheming to marry her stepdaughter, Mary of Burgundy, to her favourite brother, George of Clarence, and that if the marriage took place Clarence was then going to use Burgundian troops and treasure to make himself King of England. The Sieur de Roux further insinuated that the Lord Chamberlain of England, Lord Hastings, was closely involved in the plot. (Not for nothing has it been suggested that Louis was a model for Machiavelli’s Prince.)2

For a time Margaret had indeed proposed such a marriage. Clarence was her favourite brother and recently widowed. But it would confront Edward with an expensive war on two fronts, since the Scots would join in on the side of the French, which might well destabilize the entire political situation in England. He was able to convince Margaret that the match was impossible, and Mary was betrothed to the Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg. Clarence was bitterly disappointed. King Louis meant to profit from his dissatisfaction.

Briefly under suspicion, Hastings was summoned home to Windsor in June. Soon reassured, Edward sent him back to Calais, which expected to be attacked at any moment. ‘And as it is said, if the French king cannot get St Omer that he intendeth to bring his army through these marches into Flanders, wherefore my lord [chamberlain] hath . . . broken all the passages except Newham bridge, which is watched, and the turnpike shut every night,’ Edmund Bedingfeld reported in August. ‘And the said French king within these three days railed greatly of my lord to Tiger Pursuivant, openly, before 200 of his folks; wherefore it is thought here that he would find a quarrel to set upon this town.’ (Pursuivants were often employed as envoys.) Bedingfeld adds apprehensively, ‘I fear me sore that Flanders will be lost, and if St Omer be won, all is gone.’3 Although Burgundy survived for the time being and the situation settled down, it involved Hastings in a flurry of diplomatic activity. His lieutenancy of Calais was certainly no sinecure.

Meanwhile, since the spring rumours of plots had been circulating all over England. In June a rising broke out in East Anglia led by a man calling himself the Earl of Oxford. The impostor was speedily routed, but he had given the government a bad fright. (It did not make life any easier for the real Earl’s countess – ‘My lord of Oxenford is not comen into England that I can perceive, and so the good lady hath need of help and counsel how that she shall do,’ commented Sir John Paston.)

What now befell the Duke of Clarence has to be set in the context of these rumours and of the false Lord Oxford’s plot, and also of the French ambassador’s insinuations. Recently the Duke’s conduct had been eccentric, to put it mildly. In April that year, 1477, 80 of his men had abducted an elderly gentlewoman called Ankarette Twynhoe from her house in Somerset, dragging her off to his town of Warwick. A former lady of the late Duchess, she was charged before a jury cowed by Clarence with having given her late mistress ‘a venomous drink of ale mixed with poison’, condemned and hanged forthwith. A John Thursby of Warwick was hanged with her, accused of having poisoned the Duke’s son.

One thing at least is clear, that the Duke of Clarence was crazed by paranoia, to the point of insanity. He was convinced that his royal brother had been trying to murder him. He told his intimates that Edward employed magic to rule England, that the King ‘wrought by necromancy and used [witch]craft to poison his subjects’. The Duke alleged that his own life was threatened by the King, who meant to ‘consume him in likewise as a candle is consumed by burning’. Most unfortunately for the Duke, evidence then came to light which seemed to show that he himself had been enlisting the help of warlocks, with the worst possible intentions.

Shortly after the Ankarette Twynhoe incident, a fellow of Merton College at Oxford, Mr John Stacey, who specialized in the study of astronomy, was interrogated under torture. He had been charged with trying to kill Lord Beauchamp at the adulterous Lady Beauchamp’s instigation, by melting a leaden image of the unloved peer. Mr Stacey broke down, confessing that he had had other and far more ambitious murders in mind, implicating not only a second member of his college, Mr Thomas Blake, but Thomas Burdet, Esquire, a substantial landowner and former MP for Worcestershire, who belonged to Clarence’s household. As a result of Stacey’s confession, all three were accused of ‘imagining’ the death of King Edward and the Prince of Wales by sorcery – by manipulating images of them so that they would be consumed. The three were additionally charged with circulating ‘bills, rhymes and ballads’ designed to alienate Edward IV from his subjects. Found guilty by a jury, Stacey and Burdet were hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in May, protesting that they were innocent.

The allegations made against the Queen have already been mentioned. The fifteenth century believed implicitly in witchcraft. In 1484 Pope Innocent VIII was to commission two members of the German Inquisition to investigate the phenomenon, the result being the book entitled Malleus Maleficarum, the ‘hammer of witches’. Accusations of casting spells were part of the standard political armoury. Edward IV was himself popularly rumoured to have enlisted the services of the celebrated necromancer Friar Bungay to shroud the battlefield of Barnet in mist and to stir up storms in the Channel to delay Queen Margaret’s return in 1471.

Clarence responded to the execution of Burdet and Stacey by bursting into a session of the Privy Council in the Star Chamber at Westminster when Edward was absent. He had brought with him a friar, John Goddard, whom he ordered to read out the protests that the two men had produced at the foot of the gallows. The Duke was appealing against the King to the council. And Dr Goddard was a most unhappy choice – during the Readeption he had preached a sermon in Paul’s Cross on Henry VI’s right to the throne.

Edward IV finally lost patience with his brother. As Thomas More was to be warned of Edward’s grandson Henry VIII, ‘Indignatio principis mors est’ – ‘the indignation of the prince is death’. Mancini says that though the King normally wore a cheerful expression, ‘when he looked angry he could appear quite terrifying’. In July he summoned Clarence to Westminster, where in the presence of the Mayor and aldermen he rebuked him for conduct that devalued the law of the land and ‘was most dangerous to judges and jurors throughout the kingdom’ – an obvious reference to the hangings at Warwick. Then Edward ordered the Duke’s arrest and his committal to the Tower.

In January 1478 a bill of attainder, signed by the King, was presented to Parliament. It was very carefully drafted – Dr Morton may well have had a hand in drawing it up. George, Duke of Clarence, was specifically accused of plotting to usurp the throne, and to destroy Edward and his children, ‘a much higher, much more malicious, more unnatural and loathely treason than at any time heretofore hath been compassed, purposed and conspired’. He had attempted to alienate the King and his subjects, spreading rumours that Edward used necromancy and poison to control them. He had circulated a libel to the effect that Edward was a bastard. Finally, he had carefully kept a copy of an agreement between himself and Margaret of Anjou stating that ‘if the said [King] Henry and Edward, his first begotten son, died without issue male of their body, that the said duke and his heirs should be king of this land’.

There was no difficulty in persuading the Commons to pass the bill since the House was packed, many of its members being royal servants or retainers of the Duke of Gloucester, of the Woodvilles or of others close to the King. Hastings’ affinity may have supplied as many as ten MPs. Despite his former friendship with Clarence, William obeyed King Edward. The House of Lords was no less amenable, their spokesman, the Duke of Buckingham, formally pronouncing sentence of death. It is known that Clarence died at the Tower on 18 February 1478, though not precisely how. Nevertheless, Shakespeare is almost certainly correct in depicting his ‘execution’ by drowning in a butt of malmsey. Writing only five years afterwards, Mancini says that the Duke was ‘plunged into a jar of sweet wine’, while Philippe de Commynes says unequivocally that it was malmsey.

Was Clarence really guilty of treason? Mancini had heard that the Duke of Gloucester was so overcome with grief that he could not stop himself from promising publicly that one day he would avenge his brother’s death. However, Richard Gloucester had attended all the meetings that must have decided Clarence’s fate, while he himself benefited more than anyone else from the division of his estates – even before the trial he secured possession of Clarence’s lordship of Ogmore.4

Contemporaries were bewildered. All Mancini could find out was that ‘whether it was a fabricated plot or a real plot which had been discovered, the duke of Clarence was accused of plotting the king’s death by means of spells and magicians’. Thomas More, equally uncertain, says ‘were he faulty or were he faultless’, and cannot decide whether Clarence had been maligned by the Queen and the Woodvilles; whether Richard of Gloucester had been active in ‘helping forth his own brother of Clarence to his death, which thing in all appearance he resisted’; or whether it really was ‘a proud appetite of the duke [of Clarence] himself intending to be king’.

Whoever else may have been involved, the man primarily responsible for killing Clarence was undeniably Edward IV, even if ‘albeit he commanded it, when he wist it was done, piteously bewailed and sorrowfully repented’. For all his charm, there was a dark, sinister side to the King, as there was to most members of his family. Bacon was very near the mark in commenting, ‘it was a race often dipped in their own blood’.

‘Item, as for the pageant that men say that the earl of Oxford hath played at Hammes, I suppose ye have heard thereof?’ Sir John Paston asked his brother sardonically in August 1478. ‘He leapt the walls and went to the dyke, and into the dyke to the chin, to what intent I cannot tell. Some say to steal away, and some think he would have drowned himself.’5

Was Lord Oxford’s ‘pageant’ at Hammes inspired by the news of Clarence’s death? Was that why the Earl tried to drown himself? Certainly, it is a far from implausible explanation. Oxford had spent three wretched years in prison and must have been in despair at the prospect of spending the rest of his life behind bars. His occupation of St Michael’s Mount was surely motivated by hope invested in the Duke, his very last hope – or so it seemed in 1478.

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