Post-classical history

RICHARD III, 1483–85




The late King’s last surviving brother, the Duke of Gloucester, was still only thirty. He had an impressive military record. In January 1483 Parliament formally congratulated him on his victories over the Scots, while Mancini, Vergil and More all agree that he was a very fine soldier. Although little known in the south, since he had kept away from court and lived in Yorkshire, he was much liked in the north. Moreover, he had always been impeccably loyal to Edward IV.

Yet Richard Gloucester had also displayed a streak of vicious rapacity. When only nineteen, while squabbling with Clarence over Warwick’s estates, he had refused to leave anything for the Earl’s widow (his mother-in-law), imprisoning her at Middleham Castle for the rest of her life. How he bullied the old Countess of Oxford has been described. There were ugly rumours too about his part in the death of King Henry.

Gloucester was obviously a man of many talents, charming and persuasive when it was necessary, a man who knew exactly how to win support. Despite his unimpressive physique and normally somewhat acid expression, he undoubtedly possessed what is nowadays called ‘charisma’. If he was ruthless and brutal, he was subtle too and, as will be seen, he was wonderfully adept at concealing his real aims beneath a cloak of urbane sincerity. He was also a brilliant propagandist, skilful at manipulating public opinion or at using a smear campaign with which to destroy an opponent’s reputation. ‘He was the master of the public statement and press conference, the open letter and manifesto, the inspired leak and innuendo, the personal appeal and the restatement of accepted values,’ a distinguished historian (Michael Hicks) has written recently. ‘He understood contemporary psychology as we cannot, knew what attracted and repelled, and manipulated his audience accordingly. Thus he denounced his enemies as traitors, sorcerers, lechers, misers and evil councillors.’

At the same time, for all his very real abilities and subtlety, he was curiously prone to wishful thinking and self-delusion, as we may judge with some degree of certainty from the events about to take place.

However, none of these sinister qualities was generally attributed to Richard of Gloucester in the early spring of 1483. Most people believed him when he wrote to the council and assured them that he was going to be no less loyal to Edward V than he had been to Edward IV. Should – ‘God forbid’ – the boy die prematurely, then he would be equally faithful to the child next in line, even to a girl. So Domenico Mancini tells us, recording that everyone in London thought the Duke ought to be Protector, though he adds – and Mancini was not prone to exaggeration – ‘Some, however, who understood his ambition and deceit, always suspected where his ambition and deceit might lead him.’ But apparently Lord Hastings had no reservations whatever about his old friend.

One consequence of King Edward’s death was that William moved in with Mrs Shore, ‘with whom he lay nightly’, according to More. The latter explains that ‘When the king died, the Lord Hastings took her, which in the king’s days, albeit he was sore enamoured upon her, yet he forbare her, either for reverence or for a certain friendly faithfulness.’ Jane’s house must have been comfortable enough since Edward’s presents had made her a very rich woman. Indeed, a modern historian has suggested ungallantly that Hastings and the Marquess of Dorset were in love with her for her money.

Although he enjoyed Mrs Shore’s favours, we know that William Hastings was a very worried man. The new King was only twelve years old and clearly devoted to his mother’s family, and especially to his uncle, Lord Rivers, who had been entrusted with his education. Should the Woodvilles gain control of Edward V, they would not merely arrange for William’s ruin but in all probability for his legal murder as well. He grew seriously alarmed when the council rejected out of hand the late King’s wish that Gloucester should govern alone as Protector during his son’s minority. Instead, it decided that there should be a council of regency presided over by the Duke. Mancini says that the Woodvilles and their followers voted for this proposal because they were terrified of Gloucester.

Mancini’s informants told him that ‘the chamberlain Hastings’ reported all the council’s debates by letter and messenger to the Duke of Gloucester, because of their longstanding friendship and also because Hastings ‘was hostile to the entire kin of the queen’. William advised Gloucester to come to London with troops as soon as he could to avenge the insult done him by the council – he would easily regain control of the situation if he secured possession of the young King and arrested any Woodville supporters in the royal entourage before they realized what was happening. He added that he himself was alone in the City and in considerable danger.

Richard of Gloucester was no less worried than Hastings by the Woodvilles, whom characteristically he later labelled as ‘persons insolent, vicious and of inordinate avarice’. Clearly they smelt power. When the council fixed the date for the coronation, some members protested that they should wait until the Duke arrived before taking such a decision. The Marquess of Dorset retorted haughtily, ‘We are quite important enough to take decisions without the king’s uncle and see that they are enforced.’ Sir Edward Woodville (Rivers’ younger brother) took the royal fleet to sea, ready to block communications with Calais in case Hastings should send for its garrison. Dorset’s head was so turned that he issued orders in his own name and in that of his uncle Rivers; they styled themselves ‘Half-brother to the King’ and ‘Uncle to the King’. William could not contain his anger, shouting at a council meeting that their origin was too low and their blood too base for them to rule England.

The situation was made more explosive by lurid rumours which, it has recently been suggested, were circulated by Gloucester’s agents. Among these was a story that the Queen, Sir Edward Woodville and Dorset had divided the late King’s treasure among themselves. However, there was no treasure – Edward had left a mere £1,200 in money while his funeral had cost £1,496, so that his jewels were sold to pay for it.

Vergil believed that Gloucester only thought of making himself King when he heard of his brother’s death. More suspected he might have had a contingency plan, since he had been expecting his brother to die young, ‘but of all these points there is no certainty’. Professor Ross’s view was that the Duke decided to seize power primarily for his own safety rather than from any deep-laid plan, let alone from the determination ‘to prove a villain’ attributed to him by Tudor tradition. The Woodvilles were quite capable of launching a coup and destroying him. On the other hand, if Gloucester eliminated them without taking the Crown, the young King might well avenge his favourite relations when he reached his majority in 1486 – fifteen being the age of royal majority.

Another factor in the Duke’s calculations has recently been identified by Michael Hicks. He had spent the last decade building up his power in northern England, where the nucleus of his estates consisted of the former Nevill lands of the Earl of Warwick and Marquess Montagu. The process appeared to be complete by early 1483, when Edward IV granted him the county of Cumberland as a semi-independent palatinate. Hicks suggests that the Duke may also have contemplated carving out a principality for himself in southern Scotland.1 But at the beginning of May 1483, his entire position in the north was undermined by the death of his unmarried ward, George Nevill, Montagu’s son and Warwick’s nephew. As the heir of traitors, George, together with any children he might beget, had been deprived of his inheritance by an Act of Parliament that granted the Nevill lands to Gloucester. However, the Act had also stipulated that should George die childless, then the Duke could keep the lands only for his lifetime, after which they would revert to the Nevill family. In consequence, George’s death weakened the Duke’s authority throughout northern England, besides seriously diminishing his son’s prospects.2 Had Edward IV lived, he might have rescued Gloucester with further grants of land, but now the Duke was merely a member of the council, which would be most unlikely to help him in this way.

From the beginning, Gloucester had an ally in Henry, Duke of Buckingham, one of the richest and most powerful magnates in England. Through his descent from Edward III’s youngest son, Thomas of Woodstock, ‘Harry’ Buckingham had Plantagenet blood in his veins and was the only man in England outside the House of York allowed to quarter the royal arms. Although married to the Queen’s sister, he loathed his Woodville in-laws. Why he supported Gloucester’s bid for the throne is not clear; hatred for the Woodvilles may have been the motive, or desire to secure the estates of his Bohun ancestors.

As soon as Edward IV died, Buckingham sent a servant north to Gloucester at York, where the latter was shedding ‘plenteous tears’ at his brother’s requiem, with the message that he would support him in any plan, ‘with a thousand good fellows if need were’. Bringing 300 men, he met Gloucester at Northampton.3

Dramatic news reached the City late at night on Thursday, 1 May. Gloucester and Buckingham had intercepted Edward V on his way to London. They had also arrested Lord Rivers, Richard Grey (the Marquess’s brother), and the King’s chamberlain, Sir Thomas Vaughan (apparently a Woodville ally), sending them under guard to Pontefract – where they would later be beheaded without trial. Queen Elizabeth fled into sanctuary at Westminster, taking her younger son with her. The Chancellor, Archbishop Rotherham, came before dawn the following morning to reassure her. He announced that he had just received a message from Lord Hastings to fear nothing – ‘All should be well.’ ‘Ah, woe worth him,’ the Queen burst out at the sound of the name Hastings, ‘for he is one of them that labour to destroy me and my blood.’4

Both Mancini and More tell us that there were sinister rumours in the City to the effect that the Duke of Gloucester meant to seize the Crown. Some peers and gentlemen put on armour to defend the little King, but Hastings, ‘whose truth toward the king no man doubted, nor needed to doubt’, persuaded the lords of the council that the Duke could be trusted. He also convinced them that the Duke had arrested Rivers and his friends in self-defence. When Gloucester arrived with Edward V, his obsequious behaviour towards his nephew satisfied everyone, and at its next meeting the council had no hesitation in appointing him Protector of England. He at once altered the council’s composition, replacing Archbishop Rotherham as Chancellor with Dr John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln, though retaining Dr Morton and Hastings. He also regained control of the fleet, Edward Woodville taking refuge in France. The Marquess went into sanctuary at Westminster.

The Croyland chronicler records how William was ‘bursting with joy over this new world’. He was heard to say that the change of government from the Queen’s kindred had taken place without any more bloodshed than that ‘from a cut finger’. There is no need to disbelieve this account, even though Polydore Vergil claims that William was shocked by Gloucester’s seizure of the King – he was only too relieved that such dangerous foes as the Woodvilles had been put out of harm’s way.

Historians differ over what happened next. Gloucester’s romantic apologist, Paul Murray Kendall, thinks that Hastings, Morton, Rotherham and Lord Stanley suddenly turned against the Duke, and contacted the Woodvilles with a plot to overthrow him. ‘Such a reversal is a classical rhythm of politics,’ observes Kendall solemnly. ‘This policy was urged upon the Lord Chamberlain by more than reason. The bright voice of Jane Shore was in his ear . . . Once Hastings and his friends determined to join forces with the Woodvilles, Jane Shore was chosen to deliver their messages to the sanctuary.’

But Professor Ross, the author of what is so far the most scholarly biography of Gloucester, is convinced there was no plot against Richard. Admittedly, if anyone could have mounted a counter-coup, it was William. But he could never have trusted the Woodvilles, whose leader – now that Rivers was in prison – was the Marquess, by all accounts his most bitter enemy.

Certainly Mancini knew of no such plot. He merely reports that Gloucester realized that Hastings, Morton and Rotherham stood in the way of his plans. He feared their combined ability and authority, says the Italian, since ‘he had sounded out their loyalty through the duke of Buckingham, and learnt that they sometimes met in each other’s houses’.

Nor does More mention a Hastings–Woodville plot. ‘And of truth the protector and the duke of Buckingham made very good semblance unto the Lord Hastings and kept him much in company,’ Sir Thomas tells us. ‘And undoubtedly the protector loved him well and loath was to have lost him.’ Gloucester had shown his goodwill by restoring Hastings to his valuable post of Master of the Mint. He instructed his henchman Catesby to see if he could be won over, ‘with some words cast out afar off’.5

According to More, William Catesby had his own reasons for wanting Hastings out of the way. A sinister figure who was to become one of Richard’s principal advisers, unlike most of his master’s confidants this unscrupulous squire turned lawyer was not a Northerner but a Midlander from Northamptonshire who worked closely with Hastings both in that county and in Leicestershire as a member of William’s baronial council. More suspected that Catesby did not even raise the subject with him – ‘whether he assayed him or not’ – but pretended to Gloucester and Buckingham that he ‘heard him speak so terrible words’ that he dared not go on. More thought that Catesby deliberately ‘procured the protector hastily to rid of him . . . for he trusted by his death to obtain much of the rule that the Lord Hastings bare in his country’. In other words, Mr Catesby was after William’s jobs – he coveted all those extremely lucrative posts and offices in the Midlands.6

Whether or not Catesby was playing a double game, the Duke of Gloucester was quite shrewd enough to have guessed already that Hastings would always remain faithful to the oaths of loyalty he had sworn to Edward IV and his son. It is a testimony to Richard’s liking for the man that he nonetheless bothered to sound him out.

What is beyond question is that Gloucester and Buckingham were planning a coup d’état. Fully convinced by now that William Hastings would never agree under any circumstances to their deposing Edward V, they knew they had to destroy him. Furthermore, they were going to take William completely by surprise – he could not see that he was in any danger.

More tells of a nightmare that terrified Lord Stanley early on the night of 12 June. He dreamt that a savage boar – the Protector’s badge was a boar, as everyone knew – slashed both his own head and that of Hastings with its tusks, so that the blood ran down about their shoulders. Badly shaken, he at once sent a message to Hastings, although it was midnight, to tell him of the dream, suggesting that together they escape from the City. ‘Tell him it is plain witchcraft to believe in such dreams,’ was Hastings’ response. ‘If they were tokens of things to come, why thinketh he not that we might as likely make them true by our going?’

Stanley had already told Hastings that he was concerned at all the meetings the protector was holding at his house in Bishopsgate – Crosby Place. ‘For while we,’ he said, ‘talk of one matter in the one place, little wot we whereof they talk in the other place.’ William told him not to worry. Someone who attended the meetings would see that anything hostile said about them ‘should be in mine ears ere it were well out of their mouths’. More explains that William meant Catesby, ‘whom he very familiarly used, and in his weighty matters put no man in so special trust’, since ‘there was no man to him so much beholden as was this Catesby, which was a man well learned in the laws of this land, and by the special favour of the lord chamberlain in good authority and much rule bare in all the county of Leicester where the lord chamberlain’s power chiefly lay’.

More and Polydore Vergil give very similar accounts of the coup. Obviously each had spoken to an eyewitness. More had probably had access to a manuscript copy of Vergil’s history, and his version is very much fuller.

There was to be a council meeting at the Tower on Friday, 13 June for a final discussion of the coronation arrangements. Fifteenth-century men and women rose much earlier than we do today, generally at dawn. Nevertheless, before William was up, and still in bed with Mrs Shore, Sir Thomas Howard arrived at Jane’s house to accompany him to the Tower, ‘as it were of courtesy’. Sir Thomas was the son of his old friend Lord Howard. With hindsight it is clear he had been sent by the Protector, to make sure that Hastings came to the Tower that morning.

On the way, William stopped to talk with a priest whom they met in Tower Street. ‘What, my Lord, I pray you come on. Wherefore talk you so long with that priest? You have no need of a priest yet,’ joked Howard, laughing. ‘As though he would say, you shall have need of one soon,’ comments More, adding that someone who actually overheard the conversation real-ized its significance before the day was over. He also says that Hastings was completely trusting and never merrier. When William encountered his own pursuivant on Tower Wharf, just before entering the Palace, he told him how cheerful he was feeling, referring indirectly to the imminent execution of Rivers at Pontefract – a prospect that gave him much pleasure.

Besides himself, those who came to the council at the Tower included Archbishop Rotherham, Bishop Morton, Lord Stanley, the Duke of Buckingham, and Lord Howard. It was a very small meeting because most of the council’s other members had been invited to another discussion at Westminster, presided over by Dr Russell. Only Buckingham and Howard knew that the scene had been set for a meticulously planned coup.

The Protector joined the meeting briefly at about 9 a.m., in a most amiable mood. He asked Morton to send him strawberries from his garden in Holborn (More must surely have had this detail from Dr Morton) and then left. Returning at about 10.30 ‘with a sour and angry countenance’, he demanded to know the penalty for planning ‘the destruction of me, being so near of blood to the king, and Protector of this his royal realm?’ Everyone was astonished. Hastings, ‘who for the familiarity that was between them, thought he might be boldest with him’, answered that they ought to be punished as traitors.

‘See in what wise that sorceress [the Queen] and others of her counsel, as Shore’s wife with her affinity, have by their sorcery and witchcraft thus washed my body?’ said the Protector, rolling up his left sleeve to the elbow to show a deformed, withered arm. Every man present was fearful, realizing that some quarrel had inspired this outburst, More tells us. But with whom?

Then the Protector banged his fist on the table and armed men came running into the room. ‘I arrest thee, traitor,’ he shouted at Hastings. ‘What, me, my Lord?’ gasped William. ‘Yea, thou traitor.’ A man-at-arms aimed a blow at Lord Stanley, who dived under the table, blood running down his face, before being dragged off with Morton and Rotherham. Hastings was told to send for a priest and confess himself quickly. ‘For by St Paul I will not dine until I see thy head off.’ William was taken to the green outside and beheaded over a log.7 (Mancini comments, ‘Thus fell Hastings, killed not by those enemies he had always feared, but by a friend whom he had never doubted.’)

Vergil supplies a few more details. He says that the Protector addressed Hastings as ‘William’, while the effects of the sorcery are specified: ‘neither night nor day can I rest, drink nor eat; wherefore my blood by little and little decreaseth, my force faileth, my breath shorteneth and all the parts of my body do above measure as you see (and with that he showed them his arm) fall away, which mischief verily proceedeth in me from that sorceress Elizabeth the Queen.’ There is no mention of Mrs Shore. In a manuscript version of his English History, he states that Sir Thomas Howard commanded the armed men who had been lying in wait next door.8

A herald was sent through the City with a proclamation. It said that Hastings had plotted to kill Gloucester and Buckingham and seize the King, adding that he had led the late King into debauchery, and that Mrs Shore ‘was one of his secret counsel in this heinous treason, with whom he lay nightly, and namely the night past before his death’ – so it was not surprising that ‘ungracious living brought him to an unhappy end’.

Although no copy has survived, More’s version of the proclamation is convincing, especially the odd, moralizing note, which would be heard again. It was not the last time Mrs Shore would feature in a document of this kind. More adds sarcastically, ‘Now was this proclamation made within two hours after [Lord Hastings] was beheaded, and it was so curiously indicted, and so written in parchment in a fair, set hand, and therwith so large a process that every child might perceive that it was prepared before, and (as some men thought) by Catesby . . .’

Meanwhile, ‘All men generally lamented the death of that man, in whom both they and the nobles who favoured King Edward’s children had reposed their whole hope and confidence,’ says Vergil, echoing the Great Chronicle – ‘And thus was this noble man murdered for his troth and fidelity which he bare unto his master.’ More’s valediction is Arthurian.

Thus ended this honourable man, a good knight and a gentle, of great authority with his prince, of living somewhat dissolute, plain and open to his enemy and secret to his friend, easy to beguile, as he that of good heart and courage forestudied no perils. A loving man and passing well beloved: very faithful and trusty enough, trusting too much was his destruction . . .

William Hastings had long made provision for his death and burial, in a will dated 27 June 1481, asking that he be interred near his master and greatest friend. ‘I did write this clause and last article with mine own hand.’ We can hear William’s voice:

And for as much as the King of his abundant grace for the true service that I have done, and at the least intended to have done, His Grace hath willed and offered me to be buried in the college or chapel of St George at Windsor in a place by his Grace assigned, in the which college His Highness is disposed to be buried. I therefore bequeath my simple body to be buried in the said chapel . . .

Otherwise, Hastings’ will was conventional enough. He bequeathed sums of money for almsgiving at St George’s Chapel and to the Poor Knights of Windsor – who deputized for the Knights of the Garter at its services. He also left ‘a jewel of gold to the value of £20’ to the Dean and canons of the chapel ‘there to remain perpetually to the honour of God and for a memorial of me’. Another £20 a year went to pay a priest ‘to say daily Mass and divine service at the altar next to the place where my body shall be buried in the said chapel . . . and there to pray daily for the King’s prosperous estate during his life and after his death for his soul’. He exhorted his sons to be faithful to the King and to ‘my lord prince’ on penalty of forfeiting his blessing – in his case more than a hackneyed gesture. Having named his executors, William adds, ‘And for the perfect and sure execution of this my said last will and testament, I ordain and make the right reverend father in God, John, bishop of Ely my good lord . . .’ It was no mean compliment for Dr Morton, the former Lancastrian, that he should have won the confidence of such a man as Lord Hastings.9

A letter from one of Lord Chancellor Russell’s servants, Canon Simon Stallworth, who wrote from London to his friend Sir William Stonor soon after the coup, says that all Hastings’ affinity were transferring their allegiance. ‘All the lord chamberlain’s men become my lord of Buckingham’s men.’10 They had to think urgently about their survival in such a dangerous political climate and find a new ‘good lord’ who could protect them. It was a question of self-preservation. One of them, Sir Ralph Fitzherbert, affected to be a wholehearted supporter of the Protector; he died later that year and on his alabaster effigy at Norbury church in Derbyshire there hangs from his collar the white boar badge of the Duke of Gloucester. But at least two of William Hastings’ former well-wishers, Humphrey Stanley and James Blount, were going to fight against Richard at Bosworth.

The normal procedure would have been for the regime to attaint Lord Hastings in due course, posthumously, as a ‘traitor’. However, shortly after becoming King, Gloucester presented his widow with an indenture in which he promised her on oath that her husband would not be attainted, and by which he allowed her to retain all his lands and goods, together with the valuable wardship of her son-in-law, the Earl of Shrewsbury. He also took Lady Hastings formally under his protection. Neither William’s son, Lord Hungerford, nor his brothers suffered in any way from his fall; Ralph Hastings was briefly deprived of his captaincy of Guisnes, but he recovered it during the following year.11 Such generosity bears out More’s claim – that Richard had destroyed William Hastings only with the utmost reluctance.

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