Post-classical history

36

LADY MARGARET BEAUFORT’S
CONSPIRACY, 1483

MARGARET BEAUFORT • JOHN MORTON

Margaret Beaufort attended Richard III’s coronation on 6 July 1483. As has been seen, her husband was steward of the household, first among the court dignitaries. Their presence at the crowning and anointing in Westminster Abbey and then at the banquet in Westminster Hall was therefore unavoidable.

Despite his arrest during the coup at the Tower, Lord Stanley had made his peace with Richard by agreeing to support him. In reward, he had been appointed High Constable of England, while later he would be made a Knight of the Garter. Together with the Duke of Buckingham, the Duke of Norfolk (formerly Lord Howard), and the Earl of Northumberland, he was one of the four magnates on whom the King depended, one of the props of the new regime. However, the wife of one of those props was determined to bring it crashing down.

Margaret Beaufort carried Queen Anne’s train, taking precedence over all other peeresses, even over King Richard’s sister. We know the gowns Margaret wore for the ceremonies: one was made from six yards of crimson velvet ‘purfled’ – bordered – with white cloth of gold, the other from six and half yards of blue velvet with crimson cloth of gold.1 (Was John Lambert the mercer who supplied these rich materials?) In addition, she had been sent ten yards of scarlet cloth for her servants’ livery, from the royal palace of the Wardrobe.

In the Abbey she watched the King and Queen stand naked from the waist up as they were anointed, the crowns placed on their heads by an unwilling Cardinal Bourchier, and then, during the banquet, saw them served with hypocras by the Mayor of London. She had an excellent opportunity to observe Richard at close quarters. Sharp-featured, he had ‘a short and sour countenance’ and bore a striking resemblance to his father, the late Duke of York.2 As always he was very nervous, looking to left and right and behind him, fidgeting with one of the rings on his fingers or with the dagger at his belt. When thinking, he chewed his lower lip continually.

Like all England, she would have worried about the former King and his brother. Mancini says that he had met many Englishmen during his last few weeks in London who burst into tears whenever Edward V was mentioned. Even by the time Mancini left England, just before Richard’s coronation in July, some people in the City suspected that the boys had already been murdered, although the horrified Italian adds that he was unable to obtain any definite information – the two children had literally disappeared into thin air.

In his General Chronicle, the Elizabethan antiquary John Stow – using sources long since lost – preserves a confused account of a plot to rescue them, otherwise unknown, which four humble men tried to organize during the month of July 1483. ‘Robert Russe, sergeant of London, William Davy, Pardoner of Hounslow, John Smith, groom of King Edward’s stirrup and Stephen Ireland, with many others . . . were purposed to have set fire on divers parts of London, which fire whilst men had been staunching, they would have stolen out of the Tower’ – taking the little princes with them amid the confusion. Stowe also tells us that, when indicted, the four would-be rescuers were accused of having been in correspondence with Henry and Jasper Tudor; this suggests that their plot only came to light in October or even later, after the rebellion in which the two Tudors were involved. However, the four must have planned it in July when many Londoners thought that the boys might still be alive. Stowe’s account continues, ‘Robert Russe, William Davy, John Smith and Stephen Ireland were at Westminster judged to death and from there drawn [on hurdles] to the Tower Hill and there beheaded, and their heads were set on Tower Hill.’3

The Duke of Gloucester’s well-attested popularity during his brother’s lifetime, and while he was Protector, had blinded his normally shrewd judgement. Even though – taken by surprise – they were too frightened to resist his coup, most Englishmen could not possibly accept him as the rightful King of England. His glib pretext for setting aside his nephews was thoroughly unconvincing, the shallowest of bad law; invalid marriages and bastardy were not matters for Parliament to decide but for the Church, which had never been consulted at any stage.

Disinheriting a brother’s children and stealing their property was shocking enough in itself. What made Richard’s action so appalling was that the Crown was both hereditary and sacred; to steal it in this way was not just robbery but blasphemy as well. He was a criminal of the worst sort, however many great lords and proud prelates might outwardly acknowledge him to be their sovereign.

Most upsetting of all must have been the lurid rumours about how the children had died, in the presumption that they were dead. No doubt, if some refused to believe the rumours, many did. The absence of any firm information would have fuelled the general curiosity. ‘What kind of death,’ says Vergil, who had obviously made wide inquiries, ‘is not certainly known.’ Thomas More says they were smothered with a feather bed and then buried secretly at the Tower. Whoever wrote the Great Chronicle also believed that they had been smothered, between two feather beds.

John Rastell, in The Pastime of People – which he published in 1529 – had heard that they were killed in this way. His account of the murder is peculiarly horrible:

the most common opinion was that they were smothered between two feather beds, and that in the doing the younger brother escaped from under the feather beds, and crept under the bedstead, and there lay naked awhile, till that they had smothered the young king so that he was surely dead. And after that one of them took his brother from under the bedstead and held his face down to the ground with his one hand, and with the other cut his throat bole with a dagger.

While Rastell was writing over forty years later, such a story may well have been in existence in 1483. Given the sensational circumstances of the boys’ disappearance, and who they were, it is highly unlikely that rumours of this sort did not circulate. And although the fifteenth century was an age of the most savage violence and cruelty, it was not without pity. The folk tale of the Babes in the Wood and their wicked uncle is supposed to have emerged about this time, inspired by the events of 1483.

Probably Sir Thomas More’s brilliant reconstruction is not too far from the truth, even if some of its details may be queried. According to More, the Constable of the Tower refused to kill the boys so King Richard entrusted the job to one of his household men, Sir James Tyrell. The Constable gave Tyrell the keys of the Tower for a night, the actual murder being committed by a professional thug called Miles Forest, ‘a fellow fleshed in murder beforetime’, and by Tyrell’s ‘horsekeeper’, John Dighton.

Then all the others being removed from them, this Miles Forest and John Dighton about midnight (the innocent children lying in their beds) came into the chamber and suddenly lapped them up among the clothes – so bewrapped them and entangled them, keeping down by force the featherbed and pillows hard into their mouths, that within a while, smothered and stifled, their breath failing, they gave up to God their innocent souls into the joys of heaven, leaving to their tormentors their bodies dead in the bed.4

More adds that the boys were buried at the foot of a staircase. When a staircase to the White Tower was being demolished in 1674, workmen found a wooden chest containing the bones of two children of about the right age, though their identity has been questioned by Richard’s modern partisans.

No one will ever know just how the ‘Princes in the Tower’ died. What is beyond dispute, however, is that by the autumn of 1483 a significant number of Englishmen firmly believed that the former Edward V and his brother, the Duke of York, were dead and buried. They were also convinced that Richard III had ordered their killing. It was a conviction which earned him a whole host of irreconcilable enemies. As The Great Chronicle of London (written by someone who had almost certainly lived in the City throughout these events) says of the new King, ‘had he continued still Protector and suffered the childer to have prospered according to his allegiance and fidelity, he should have been honourably lauded over all, whereas now his fame is dirtied and dishonoured’.

Nothing else but an unshakeable belief that neither of the two boys would ever be seen again can possibly explain the subsequent behaviour of the Duke of Buckingham and of Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond. Nor can anything else account for the uncompromising support given to Henry’s two very risky bids for the throne by so many hitherto staunch Yorkists – a significant number of whom were former servants of Edward IV. They were prepared to venture their lives, their good and their families in a rebellion against an alarmingly formidable monarch, who was popularly considered to be one of the best military commanders of his day. By contrast, Henry Tudor was a totally unknown, untried and penniless adventurer.

The very knowledgeable and well informed author of the ‘second continuation’ of the Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland (who has been plausibly if not conclusively identified as Richard’s Lord Chancellor, Dr Russell) describes convincingly how the opposition to the new regime developed. At first, in order to deliver the princes from the Tower of London, ‘the people of the southern and western parts of the country began to murmur greatly and to form meetings and confederacies’. Then, continues the writer, sinister rumours started to circulate widely, that the two boys had been murdered, rumours which were generally believed. He informs us that the thoughts of such people turned towards Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond.

If Polydore Vergil is correct, Richard had himself spread the rumours that the boys were dead so that ‘after the people understood no issue male of King Edward be now left alive, they might with better mind and good will bear and sustain his government’. The Croyland chronicler also seems to suggest that these rumours had emanated from the King. It was a disastrous blunder on Richard’s part. He had left Henry Tudor out of his calculations; the elimination of the princes made Henry the only man who could reasonably challenge his right to the throne. Two people in particular had already reached this conclusion – Margaret Beaufort and John Morton.

For many years Henry Tudor had been a prisoner in Brittany, sometimes at the castle of Elven eleven miles north-east of Vannes – the Breton capital – and sometimes at Vannes itself. His uncle Jasper was kept away from him, in separate custody, either at Josselin or elsewhere at Vannes. Edward IV tried to obtain possession of Henry on more than one occasion. Bernard André records how in 1476 Margaret sent a warning to her son not to return to England, even though the King might offer him the hand of one of his daughters in marriage.

Vergil tells us that during the same year, 1476, ‘seduced by money from honesty, faith and good dealing’, Duke Francis II of Brittany agreed to hand over Henry to King Edward. Knowing that he was on his way to his death, when the English ambassadors took him to the port of St Malo to board a ship that was bound for England, he either fell ill ‘through agony of mind’ or else feigned illness. Luckily one of the Duke’s advisers, Jean Chenlet, explained to Francis that Henry was going ‘to be torn in pieces by bloody butchers’ – to be hanged, drawn and quartered. The ducal treasurer, Pierre Landois, rushed to St Malo and had the young man taken into sanctuary at a church in the town, promising the ambassadors that he would be kept in confinement.

However, Margaret herself did not allow Edward to forget Henry Tudor. Since she was at court, she had ample opportunity to intercede for her son, and during the last years of the reign it looked as though her efforts might be rewarded. Only recently evidence has been discovered which shows just how near she came to reconciling the regime to ‘the only imp now left of King Henry VI’s blood.’ The new evidence also refutes Polydore Vergil’s assumption that Edward ‘lived, as it were, in perpetual fear’ of Henry Tudor.5

On 3 June 1482 a deed drawn up at Westminster in King Edward’s presence gave permission for Henry to inherit lands worth £400 a year from his grandmother’s estate, on condition that he came back to England ‘to be in the grace and favour of the King’s Highness’. In the same deed Lord Stanley promised that he would not ask for any changes to his wife’s marriage settlement. As a result his stepson had every prospect of one day becoming a great landed magnate. We also know (from the Calendar of Papal Registers) that Stanley and Margaret had discussed with King Edward and Bishop Morton the possibility of a marriage between Henry and the King’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. The draft of a royal pardon for Henry survives, written on the back of the patent that had created his father Earl of Richmond.

There is therefore ample proof that Henry Tudor had been seriously considered as a candidate for the hand of Elizabeth long before the events of 1483 and the disappearance of her brothers. It explains why Dr Morton, the Queen Dowager and the Duke of Buckingham accepted Henry as the obvious suitor for the heiress of Edward IV, tacitly recognizing his claim to the throne – which was why they followed Margaret’s lead in plotting against Richard from such an early stage. Richard’s habitual absence from court indicates that he had known nothing of the proposed marriage and accounts for why he at first failed to identify Henry Tudor as his principal rival.

Because Edward Hall wrote sixty years later, obviously to flatter the Tudor dynasty in general and Henry VIII in particular, his Union of the Two Illustre Families of York and Lancaster is treated with considerable reserve by modern historians. They suspect him of trying to please King Henry by exaggerating the roles played by his father and his grandmother during the Wars. Yet Hall could well have had access to sources of information which have since disappeared. He gives a more than plausible account of an unpremeditated meeting between Margaret and the Duke of Buckingham which he says took place during the latter half of July 1483, just after Richard’s coronation.

According to Hall, after attending the coronation, the Duke had suddenly grown disillusioned with King Richard and contemplated seizing the Crown for himself. On his way to Shrewsbury, quite by chance he encountered Lady Margaret Beaufort on the road between Worcester and Bridgnorth. She was making a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Blessed Virgin at Worcester. (As Henry Stafford’s widow she was the Duke’s aunt, so presumably they were on familiar terms and accustomed to speaking frankly to each other.) Margaret asked him to intercede with Richard to allow her son Henry Tudor to return to England and marry one of Edward IV’s daughters ‘without anything to be taken or demanded for the same espousals but only the king’s favour’.6

What makes it so likely that this conversation really did occur are the negotiations which we now know to have taken place before Richard became King. Moreover, as Hall makes abundantly clear, the discussion between Buckingham and his aunt prepared the ground for the subtle arguments of Dr Morton.

After his arrest during the June coup, John Morton had been kept in close confinement at the Tower of London, although he was by now a venerable old man in his sixties. King Richard must have been very much aware of his reputation for unshakeable fidelity, how he had stayed loyal to the House of Lancaster throughout its darkest years. Nor can the King have forgotten that Edward IV had appointed Morton one of the executors of his will – which had mysteriously disappeared. In addition, so Mancini had heard, he was widely reputed to be ‘of great resource and daring’. He was popular too, in certain quarters – the University of Oxford petitioned for his release from imprisonment, describing the Bishop of Ely as her dearest son. In response, he was placed in the custody of the Duke of Buckingham, under what would now be called house arrest at ‘Brecknock’ Castle on the Welsh border, which was the Duke’s principal stronghold. (Today only fragments of it remain in the grounds of the Castle Hotel at Brecon.) There were many opportunities for the wily doctor to hold a private conversation with Buckingham.

Combining what he had gleaned from survivors of King Richard’s council, from a manuscript copy of Polydore Vergil’s history, and perhaps from the aged Morton himself, Sir Thomas More recreated the discussions between Morton and the Duke. When the latter began by praising King Richard, the Bishop answered frankly that he would have preferred to have seen Henry VI’s son on the throne of England but, since the boy was dead, he had changed sides. ‘So was I to King Edward faithful chaplain and glad would have been if his child had succeeded him.’ Frustratingly, More’s account is unfinished, but he makes it clear that in his opinion Morton’s fluently expressed arguments persuaded the Duke of Buckingham to lead a rebellion.

The early Tudor historians admitted that they were puzzled by the Duke’s volte-face since he had been Richard’s main ally in seizing the throne. Vergil thought that it was either because the King refused to let him have all the old Bohun lands of his ancestors or else because he was genuinely sorry for what he had done. However, there is a much simpler if more cynical explanation – Buckingham was so shaken by the evidence of widespread hostility to Richard III that he realized that such an unpopular regime could not hope to survive for very long.

According to Vergil, the Duke proposed to Dr Morton that Henry Tudor should become King, with Elizabeth of York for his consort. The Croyland chronicler on the other hand was convinced that the Bishop put the idea into Buckingham’s head. ‘We shall find Dr Morton his Caput Argol, or the malignant Planet of his Fortune,’ the seventeenth-century historian George Buck says of the Bishop, ‘who by his Politick Drifts and Pride, advanced himself and brought the Duke to his Ruin.’7 Some modern historians suspect that Buckingham may have planned to make himself King instead of Henry. Had that been the case, however, the Duke would surely have opposed Henry’s marriage with Edward IV’s daughter.8

The same solution had already occurred to Margaret Beaufort. ‘And she, being a wise woman, after the slaughter of King Edward’s children was known, began to hope well of her son’s fortune’ is Vergil’s comment. She used her personal physician, Dr Lewis Caerleon – ‘a grave man and of no small experience’ – to sound out the dowager Queen, whom he was also attending in a personal capacity. From the sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, Elizabeth Woodville answered that she would do everything in her power to persuade Edward IV’s former friends to support Henry Tudor, if he would marry her daughter Elizabeth when he had gained the Crown.

Dr Morton sent a message to Margaret, informing her that the Duke of Buckingham was ready to lead the rising. In response she dispatched her receiver-general, Reginald Bray, to Brecon. (Bray was the household man to whom Henry Stafford had left his grizzled old horse.) A gifted organizer, Bray recruited a large number of conspirators, including many of the Queen Dowager’s friends; each man swore an oath of secrecy. At the same time Margaret sent her servant Hugh Conway ‘with a good great sum of money’ to Henry Tudor in Brittany, advising him to land in Wales where supporters would be waiting for him. Another messenger came to Henry from the gentlemen of Kent.

Reading Vergil’s account, one has very much the impression of a grand conspiracy. It involved several distinct groups: old, unreconciled Lancastrians, former servants of Edward IV, the Woodvilles, with all their connections, and anyone else who simply could not stomach the usurpation. Many of the plotters were men of substance with everything to lose, important landowners who had been sheriffs of their counties or Members of Parliament, but there were also plenty of lesser gentry and yeomen among them. Vergil singles out Dr Morton as the chief recruiting agent, though Margaret Beaufort and Reginald Bray seem to have been no less active in gathering supporters.

However, if this was a grand conspiracy, it was restricted to southern England, the West Country and Wales. Moreover, it lacked proper co-ordination. Inexperienced as a soldier, the Duke of Buckingham was no leader; his Welsh affinity and tenants disliked the Duke as ‘a sore and hard-dealing man’ and followed him only with the greatest reluctance. Most ominous of all, Margaret’s husband, Lord Stanley, would not join the plot – he disliked Buckingham because of territorial rivalry in North Wales. Other than the Duke and Henry Tudor, the only other peer actively involved was the Marquess of Dorset, who was still in hiding.

Richard III was famed for his watchfulness and swift reactions, ‘a man much to be feared for circumspection and celerity’, as Vergil says. The King knew that he must expect trouble, and expect it fairly soon. So many sympathizers were trying to visit the Queen Dowager in Westminster Abbey that the guard round the sanctuary had to be increased more than once. By early August he had discovered that a rising was imminent but could not ascertain any details. Vergil tells us that Richard suspected the Duke of Buckingham and summoned him to court. The Duke made excuses, ‘alleging infirmity of stomach’.

At least the rebels’ strategy was on a grand scale. Who planned it is unknown. There were to be separate risings all over the south-east on 18 October (St Luke’s Day), together with a mock attack on London by the Kentishmen. The object was to keep the King busy while the Duke of Buckingham brought his Welshmen across the River Severn to link up with the West Country forces, and then meet Henry Tudor, who would land in Devon with 5,000 Bretons. The plan was far too elaborate.

Everything went wrong for the rebels from the start. Spies succeeded in learning their entire plan of campaign and warned Richard at the beginning of October. Knowing that the main threat was Buckingham, he ordered his supporters on the Welsh border to delay the Duke’s advance. Identifying the West Country as the most dangerous sector, on 23 October the King sent instructions to the Sheriff of Devon to issue a proclamation denouncing supporters of ‘the great rebel, the late duke of Buckingham’.

What made the proclamation so extraordinary was its heading, ‘Proclamation for the Reform of Morals’. First among those to be denounced was ‘Thomas Dorset, late marquess of Dorset, who holds the shameful and mischievous woman called Shore in adultery’. In addition, the Marquess ‘hath many and sundry maids, widows and wives damnably and without shame devoured, deflowered and defiled’, while all the rebels were guilty of ‘the damnable maintenance of vices and sin as they had in times past, as to the great displeasure of God and evil example of all Christian people’.9Professor Ross comments that the proclamation reads more like a tract against sexual licence than a condemnation of armed treason.10

On St Luke’s Day, as planned, there were risings against Richard III in Kent, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Devon and Brecon, which began well enough. However, there was no need for the King’s supporters to impede the march of the Duke of Buckingham’s Welshmen into England; a torrential downpour set in for ten days, rivers bursting their banks and roads turning into quagmires. Half drowned, the Duke’s unwilling army disintegrated. Disguised as a labourer, he went into hiding in Shropshire near the house of one of his own men – who promptly betrayed him. He was taken to Salisbury and beheaded in the marketplace there on 2 November. Margaret had lost yet another kinsman.

The rebellion collapsed, no one daring to wait and defy the infuriated King, who occupied Exeter without having to exchange a blow. Henry Tudor’s little fleet was scattered by storms on its way over from Brittany. With two ships he anchored off Plymouth, sending a boat to investigate when he saw troops. From the shore they shouted that they were the Duke of Buckingham’s men, but Henry was much too wary to be caught and made his way back to Brittany.

Lady Margaret Beaufort had everything to fear from King Richard since, so Vergil tells us, she ‘was commonly called the head of that conspiracy’.

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