Post-classical history




In February 1478 William Hastings was appointed ‘Lieutenant-General’ of Calais for another ten years. He continued to enjoy Edward IV’s favour, though as he grew older the King was becoming increasingly distrustful and suspicious of those closest to him. William had been made Master of the Mint for life during the previous year. Men went on joining his affinity, such as Lord Mountjoy in February 1480 (who, when dying, would warn his sons that it was dangerous to be a peer or wish to ‘be great about princes’). His influence remained paramount. The mercers record that in January 1480 he intervened with King Edward on behalf of the merchant adventurers. They also record how he warned the merchant adventurers not to boast that he was helping them – ‘the lord chamberlain aviseth the fellowship to be more secret of their friends and that none avaunt be made [about] who is friendly and laboureth for us.’1

Yet, significantly, they thanked not just Lord Hastings but Earl Rivers and the Marquess of Dorset, who ‘have been right friendly and laboured for us in our matter of subsidy. And [we] have prayed them of their good lordships.’ More significant still, it was the Queen who finally persuaded Edward IV to grant the merchant adventurers’ petition. The Woodvilles were keen rivals for the King’s ear. William was uncomfortably aware that they were going do him all the harm they could. Above all, Earl Rivers coveted his lieutenancy of Calais.

Always under threat from the ‘spider king’, Louis XI, Calais was far from being a bed of roses. The town was Edward IV’s listening post in the potentially disastrous (for England) struggle between France and Burgundy. Momentarily, English diplomacy seemed to prosper. In 1480 Edward signed a treaty of alliance with Mary of Burgundy and her husband, Archduke Maximilian, by which Edward’s daughter Anne was to marry their heir, Philip. During the following year it was agreed that the Prince of Wales should marry Anne of Brittany, the heiress of the semi-independent duchy. However, Louis responded by encouraging the Scots to attack northern England. The Anglo-Scots war that ensued used up all Edward’s resources, making it impossible for him to send adequate military aid to either Burgundy or Brittany.

Forgetting King Louis and the Scots, in the City the last years of Edward IV’s reign appeared as a golden age. The economic depression had come to an end and business was booming. Thomas More recalls in wistful, elegiac tones an incident that took place in 1482. He may well have spoken to some of those present.

During the summer before King Edward died, he invited the Mayor and aldermen of London to join him at his hunting palace of the Bower in Waltham Forest, ‘only to hunt and make pastime’. Here he gave them ‘so familiar cheer, and sent also to their wives such plenty of venison that no one thing in many days before gat him either more hearts or more hearty favour among common people’. We know from a London chronicler that the King had given the Mayor’s wife two harts and six bucks, together with a tun of wine, and that – her husband being a draper – she and the alderman’s ladies then held their own party at the Drapers’ Hall.2

While the citizens invited to the Bower were feasting in a lodge of green boughs on red and fallow deer, washed down by good Bordeaux wines, according to The Great Chronicle of London Lord Hasting visited them twice, ‘to make them cheer’.3 He had been sent by King Edward, who sat apart, to see that they were enjoying themselves. Although there was plenty to occupy him in Calais, William was often in England because he still had to perform his duties as chamberlain. He also had to report on the Burgundian situation and the threat from Louis.

Thomas More was born only in 1478, but obviously his parents had talked to him about the early years of their marriage. Living in the centre of the City, prosperous and well informed, they remembered Edward IV’s reign as a time of political tranquility before ‘the cruelty, mischief and trouble of the tempestuous world that followed’. He had made England rich and peaceful, free from any serious threat of invasion by French or Scots. His people supported him because they were genuinely loyal. He was always ‘so benign, courteous and familiar’ that he achieved real popularity.

King Edward stayed at peace with France, drawing his pension from Louis XI while allying with Burgundy and Brittany. A short war with Scotland was won in 1482 when Richard Gloucester briefly occupied Edinburgh in July and recovered Berwick in August. Edward ‘had left off gathering money from his subjects, which is the only thing that draweth the hearts of Englishmen from their kings and princes’, wrote the Croyland chronicler. As for law and order, he had had much more success in reducing crimes of violence. England was better governed than at any time since Henry V’s reign.

Although self-indulgent and grown fat, Edward looked healthy enough as he approached his forties. While thoughtful observers may have seen it as a bad sign that he did not lead his troops in person against the Scots, most people assumed that someone quite so tall and strong ought to reach fifty at least. In any case, the Yorkist succession looked secure. Not only did Edward have two sons, but Gloucester had one as well.

No king could have possessed a more reliable lieutenant than Edward’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who made himself popular in the north of England by ‘favours’ and by ensuring that justice was done. ‘Foreigners were deeply impressed by his reputation for clean living and his contribution to public life,’ Mancini reports. ‘He had such a name as a soldier that any serious threat to the realm was left to his discretion and his generalship.’ Later the Duke of Buckingham would confidently refer to Gloucester’s military prowess as common knowledge.

Mancini was impressed by the calibre of three of King Edward’s ministers in particular. They were Archbishop Rotherham of York (the Lord Chancellor), Bishop Morton, and Lord Hastings. ‘These men, mature in years and wise from long experience of affairs of state, helped more than any other members of the Council to shape royal policy and see that it was put into practice.’ He notes, however, that not only was ‘Astinco’ (Hastings) a policy-maker and someone who had shared every dangerous moment of Edward’s life, but that the Lord Chamberlain aided and abetted Edward in his womanizing.4

The Italian then pinpoints a key factor in the troubles that were to follow Edward’s death – the feud between William and the Woodvilles. Because of quarrels over women, he and the Marquess spread slanders about each other through informers who had been bribed – slanders so serious, according to Mancini, that they might have caused their execution. However, even more dangerous libels emanated from Lord Rivers.

Certainly William Hastings was very powerful indeed, and not just because he was an important minister. Polydore Vergil had been told by those who remembered William that ‘amongst all the nobility [he] was for his bountifulness and liberality much beloved of the common people, bearing great sway among all sorts of men and persons of great reputation’. He enjoyed a long-standing friendship with the Duke of Gloucester – More believed the duke ‘loved him well’ – rejoicing at news of Gloucester’s victory over the Scots. On 16 August 1482 the wool merchant William Cely wrote from Calais of the celebrations there at tidings of the occupation of Edinburgh, ‘for the which my lord [chamberlain] commanded a general procession and at night bonfires to be made at every door as was at Midsummer’s Night’. All the Calais cannon ‘were shot for joy’.

Yet despite William’s friendships with the King and Gloucester, he had a most formidable enemy in Anthony, Earl Rivers, the Queen’s brother and head of the Woodville family. Elegant and well read, Rivers was a mystic, who wore a hair shirt, a man who could write a haunting poem while awaiting his execution – a ‘death day ballad’:

Somewhat musing,
And more mourning . . .

In many ways he comes down the centuries as rather an attractive figure. ‘Lord Rivers was always considered a kind, serious and just man, and tested by every vicissitude of life,’ Mancini tells us. ‘However much he prospered, he never harmed anyone, while doing good to many.’ Even so, Rivers did his best to harm Lord Hastings and very nearly destroyed him.

Both men tried to ruin each other by accusations, at second hand, of plotting to sell Calais to Louis XI. It may have been Rivers who began the campaign. During the summer of 1482 rumours were circulating that ‘my lord chamberlain’ had had copies made of the town keys, to admit French troops secretly. Hastings blamed Robert Radcliffe, gentleman porter of Calais, for the rumours, ordering his servants to get out of the town at once – presumably he was unable to lay hands on Radcliffe himself. He retaliated in like kind. During the same month, interrogated at Westminster by the King and the council, a certain John Edward withdrew accusations he had made at Calais against Rivers and Dorset, saying that he had made them from ‘his own false imagination’ when in fear for his life and of being put in the ‘brake’ (i.e. the rack). In December John Edward and Guillaume Vambard were hanged at Tyburn for libelling the Woodvilles. Everyone must have suspected, with justice, that Hastings had been behind the allegations.5

This smear campaign has to be set in context. It took place at a time when Edward IV’s entire foreign policy was threatened with collapse. (In Ross’s words, ‘A foreign policy based upon the continuing good faith of Louis XI was always likely to end disastrously.’) Mary of Burgundy had died unexpectedly in March 1482 from a riding accident, whereupon the Flemish, who disliked her widower, Archduke Maximilan, had opened negotiations with Louis XI. Crippled by the expenses of the Scots war, King Edward was unable to intervene. Hastings crossed and recrossed the Channel, reporting on the situation – on one occasion he was met at Dover by ‘500 men all in white gowns to bring him home’, striking a joyful note at a most unjoyful time. By July the French were occupying the frontier towns. Maximilian finally despaired of help from England in September when Louis published a secret truce of nonaggression which Edward had signed with him the previous year, and began to negotiate with the French. Edward heard the news when Hastings came over to report to the council early in October. On 23 December Maximilian and Louis signed the Treaty of Arras; the former’s daughter Mary was to marry the Dauphin and the counties of Artois and Burgundy were to go to France. There was no longer any need for King Louis to pay the English King a pension.

News of the Treaty of Arras reached Edward IV during the twelve days of Christmas. The Croyland chronicler, who spent Christmas at court, reports that the King ‘thought of nothing but taking vengeance’. Regardless of expense or the lack of Burgundian allies, he began to plan another invasion of France. He may even have blamed the ruin of his foreign policy on the diplomatic shortcomings of Hastings, who had always taken the part of the Burgundians. If this really was the case, then King Edward would have been only too ready to credit charges of treachery.

There is some evidence that Hastings was sent to the Tower for a short period, where he daily expected his death warrant to arrive. ‘I was never so sorry, nor never stood in so great danger in my life’, More reports him as saying. Just when this occurred is not recorded, but it is significant that on 6 February 1483 William was replaced as Master of the Mint by Bartholomew Reed, a London goldsmith, although he had been granted the post for life.6 Three months later, meeting his herald ‘Tiger Pursuivant’ on Tower Bridge, he reminded him that when they had met there previously, he ‘had been accused to King Edward by the Lord Rivers, the queen’s brother, insomuch that he was for a while, which lasted not long, highly in the king’s indignation’.7

William was soon exonerated of any plot to hand over Calais to Louis XI, and of all blame for the Burgundian debacle. However, the episode can scarcely have increased his affection for the Woodvilles. They were no less bitter. Lord Rivers had had copies made of John Edward’s confession in August to show that he too had been the victim of a smear campaign.

What made the feud potentially so dangerous was the Woodvilles’ combination of power and unpopularity. All too many thought that they were ‘ignoble and new made men [novi homines], who were promoted above those who far excelled them in both breeding and ability’, as Mancini puts it. Their lack of birth was exaggerated, but not the angry jealousy that many magnates and gentry felt for them. An opponent of the regime might decide to exploit the situation. Fortunately the regime had no serious opponents.

But at the end of March 1483 King Edward suddenly fell ill, struck down by a mysterious illness. Commynes believed it was an apoplexy brought on by news of the Treaty of Arras,8 while Mancini thought the cause was a chill caught when the King was with a fishing party in a small boat on the Thames. Sir Winston Churchill – or one of his researchers – made a plausible guess in suggesting that it may have been an appendicitis.

Mancini records how on his deathbed, recognizing the seriousness of the Hastings–Woodville feud, the King ‘who loved each of them’ tried to reconcile William with his stepson, the Marquess of Dorset. Shakespeare’s affecting scene is true enough:

Dorset, embrace him – Hastings, love lord marquess

But, as Mancini observes with considerable understatement, a latent hostility persisted between the pair. There was no attempt to reconcile William with Lord Rivers, probably because the Earl was away in Shropshire.

Comforted by Bishop Morton, Edward IV died at Westminster on 9 April, still only forty. He was buried with all the ritual pomp and magic that had not been seen since the interment of Henry V over sixty years before. After lying in state for eight days in St Steven’s Chapel at Westminster, his embalmed corpse was borne on a bier into the Abbey by fifteen knights and squires of the Body in a procession that was led by ten bishops and two abbots. A life-sized effigy of the King, dressed in robes of state with the crown on his head, sceptre in one hand and orb in the other, stood on top of the hearse in which he was laid. The image stayed on the hearse during the funeral progress to Windsor. At the offerings before Edward was finally laid to rest in his tomb in St George’s Chapel, Lord Hastings and Lord Stanley carried his great gilded helmet.9

No doubt echoing what he had heard from his parents and from their friends, Sir Thomas More testifies to how popular Edward had become during his second reign, even among former Lancastrians:

There never was any king in this realm attaining the crown by war and battle so heartily beloved with the substance of the people . . . At such time as he died, the displeasure of those that bare him a grudge for King Henry’s sake, the Sixth whom he deposed, was well assuaged and in effect quenched.

As for his infamous womanizing, ‘This fault not greatly grieved his people.’

Historians vary considerably in their estimate of Edward IV, but it has to be said that on balance he was colourful and impressive rather than truly great. Certainly he ended his life in unchallenged occupation of the throne, a fine fighting soldier who had defeated all his enemies, while his financial policy was so sound that he died solvent – something no English monarch had achieved for at least two centuries. On the other hand, he made disastrous mistakes. He was caught out by Warwick in 1469 and again in 1470. His foreign policy, dependent on the goodwill of the notoriously slippery Louis XI, ended in ruin. He failed to control retaining, through which affinities could so easily become private armies. Worst of all, by favouring the Woodvilles, he had made further strife inevitable.

John Skelton wrote dolefully in a funeral elegy for the king, ‘I have played my pageant, now I am past.’ But Edward’s death was much more than the last act of a pageant. Skelton also wrote in his elegy, more truly than he realized, ‘When death approacheth, then lost is the field.’ The King’s premature demise doomed the House of York, and the Race of Plantagenet itself.

Thomas More recalled a story his father had told him about the ominous behaviour of a neighbour, Mr Richard Pottyer. An attorney who worked for the Duke of Gloucester, he lived near the Mores’ house in Milk Street. Before dawn on the morning after King Edward’s death, a man called Mistlebrook knocked at Pottyer’s door and gave him the news. ‘ “By my troth, man” quoth Pottyer, “then will my master the duke of Gloucester be King.” ’

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