Post-classical history




In Professor Ross’s opinion, ‘the master-mind behind the entire plan may well have been the wily John Morton, bishop of Ely’.1 Undoubtedly he was responsible for a good deal of it. Although Richard could not catch him, the King did his best to destroy the reputation of that elusive divine. One of the Acts of attainder included the name of Thomas Nandyke, ‘necromancer’, whom it alleged to have been at Brecon Castle with Morton. Sir George Buck states that during the 1484 Parliament ‘there was accused and attainted of sorcery and other such devilish practices, Doctor Lewis, Doctor Morton, William Knevitt of Buckingham, the Countess of Richmond, Thomas Nandick, of Cambridge, conjurer, with others . . .’ Admittedly Morton was not branded as a warlock in the Act which attainted him, but he may have been so in a speech in Parliament. Buck adds that Dr Morton was reported to have poisoned Edward IV. Richard’s regime was far from averse to smear tactics.2

What is beyond question is that John Morton had escaped. As soon as he saw that the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion was collapsing, the Bishop made his way in disguise to an unknown refuge somewhere in his diocese of Ely. There were plenty of suitable hiding places amid the Fens. Moreover, from the lonely and sparsely populated East Anglian coastline nearby, it was very easy for him to cross discreetly to the Low Countries at whatever moment he chose. He may not have left England until the beginning of 1484 when the authorities started to relax their vigilance.

Exactly where Dr Morton spent his exile in Flanders is unknown. It may have been Bruges, though here he would have been in danger from agents of the dowager Duchess of Burgundy, Margaret of York. As a port where news of England could be had from the merchant community, Antwerp is more probable, but here there was a possibility of kidnap by Richard’s spies.

On the other hand, Antwerp was a good place from which to watch the relations between France and Brittany, relations that were starting to have alarming implications for Henry Tudor. The Regent of France, Anne de Beaujeu, was threatened by the Duke of Orleans and Maximilian of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, who hoped to bring in the Duke of Brittany on their side. Francis II was mentally unstable, leaving his treasurer, Pierre Landois, to manage affairs of state. Landois favoured Orleans and Maximilian and in consequence sought an alliance with England to defend the Duchy against the French.

Meanwhile, from Morton’s point of view, the situation in England was not unpromising. Richard III might have won a crushing victory yet, perversely, it only increased opposition to his rule. The southerners disliked being colonized by the northern squires who took over the confiscated manor houses; they wanted their old masters back instead of being bullied by these alien newcomers, the Croyland chronicler tells us. Another rising was only just forestalled at the end of 1484, while the long-expected invasion would come in 1485. There is evidence too that members of Richard’s own household were plotting against him throughout his reign.

The King was obsessed by Henry Tudor. However thin his Plantagenet blood might be, however tenuous his claim to the throne, Richard now took him very seriously indeed as a rival. He worked feverishly to persuade the Bretons to eliminate Henry and the exiles. In June 1484 he signed a treaty with the Duke – inspired by Pierre Landois – in which he promised to lend the Bretons a thousand English archers if the French attacked them. At the same time he stipulated that Henry must be placed in close confinement.

It is likely that Lord Stanley heard of the agreement during a meeting of the council, and then told Margaret, who dispatched a fast messenger to Dr Morton in Flanders. The news reached Morton some time in September 1484. He at once sent Christopher Urswick – who happened to be visiting him at the time – to tell Henry that he must leave Brittany.3 Having delivered the warning, Dr Urswick hurried to the French court where he obtained a safe conduct for him to enter France. Leaving all his followers behind at Vannes, Henry fled with five servants – exchanging clothes with one of them – and rode hard along unfrequented roads to the Breton border, sometimes changing direction in order to confuse his pursuers, stopping only to feed and water his horses. Even so, he crossed the border into Anjou a bare hour ahead of the pursuing men-at-arms.

Pierre Landois had owed his dominance to the temporary incapacity of Francis II. Suddenly the Duke recovered his wits and was enraged when he learnt how his treasurer had treated Henry. He gave Sir Edward Woodville and Edward Poynings permission to take their friends to Henry in France, providing them with money for the journey. The Tudor court in exile – the first Tudor court – was re-established at Montargis in the Loire Valley, attaching itself to that of Charles VIII of France. Even when at Vannes it had grown to 300, its chief luminaries besides Uncle Jasper and the Marquess of Dorset being Woodville and Poynings. It continued to grow steadily, especially after following the French King to Paris. Refugees from England went on flocking to it while young English students in Paris began to join, such as Richard Fox, a future Bishop of Winchester.

The French were far from convinced that the Hundred Years’ War was over. They were fearful that Richard III might suddenly invade France through Brittany, seeing the thousand archers who had recently arrived in the Duchy as an advance guard. They welcomed Henry Tudor and gave him 3,000 livres to arm his men. Some urged Anne de Beaujeu to provide him with assistance for an expedition against Richard.

The exiled court’s most important recruit was undoubtedly the Earl of Oxford, who arrived when it was still at Montargis. Vergil may well be quoting an eyewitness in saying, ‘When Henry saw th’earl, he was ravished with joy incredible.’ Oxford was one of the greatest noblemen in England and certainly the most distinguished soldier who had so far joined him; he was also a symbol of Lancastrian loyalty to all those who mourned for Henry VI. And he brought more than himself.

Lord Oxford had not only persuaded James Blount, the Captain of Hammes Castle, to let him escape but to come with him, accompanied by Sir John Fortescue – ‘gentleman porter of Calais’. They had left Mrs Blount in charge of the garrison, which had also changed sides. Soon she sent word that Hammes was being besieged by a large force of Richard’s men from Calais. Oxford went to its relief with a band of exiles, attacking the besiegers from the rear, while Thomas Brandon led thirty others into the castle by a secret path through the adjoining marsh. King Richard did not recover Hammes until the end of January 1485, and then only by giving the garrison a free pardon together with leave to depart ‘bag and baggage’. Mrs Blount and her soldiers went off to Paris.

Unlike most of the anti-Ricardian exiles, Dr Morton did not go to Paris but preferred to stay in Flanders, though keeping in close touch with Henry Tudor. After his days at Koeur-la-Petite, he had had quite enough of exiled courts. In the Low Countries he was able to receive news from England much more quickly, brought by alert friends who slipped over the sea unobserved in one of the many merchant vessels plying between East Anglia and Flanders – by contrast, the less-frequented sea-lanes to Brittany were being closely patrolled by Richard’s ships.

Apparently aware of his unpopularity, Richard III was by now issuing pardons right and left in an attempt to buy support. Several went to gentlemen from the southern counties who had been involved in Buckingham’s rebellion. One was given to Sir John Fogge, a connection of the Woodvilles. Richard had already pardoned Fogge in June 1483 after the coup, publicly shaking his hand when he emerged from sanctuary at Westminster – which had not stopped him from joining in the Duke’s rising that autumn. Now Sir John received a second pardon, together with a grant of his former estates in Kent. Still more unexpected was a general pardon issued on 11 December 1484 to John Morton, Bishop of Ely – which was ignored by the doctor.


Dr Christopher Urswick, Margaret Beaufort’s confessor, who in 1484 warned Henry Tudor that the Bretons were planning to sell him to King Richard. From a brass of 1523 at Hackney.

The King had serious dynastic problems. His only legitimate son had died in April 1484, a loss that might have been seen as divine retribution by fifteenth-century men, not least by Richard. Save for the King himself, the sole remaining male Plantagenet was Clarence’s son, the nine-year-old Earl of Warwick. The boy made a far from suitable heir to the throne; besides being too young, the king had in any case declared his father to have been a bastard. Eventually Richard chose his nephew John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln, as heir presumptive.

However, Richard’s queen died in March 1485, leaving him free to remarry. His eye lit upon his niece, Elizabeth of York, who had obvious advantages as a consort; she was recognized by his opponents as the heiress of Edward IV and to marry her would effectively block Henry Tudor’s dynastic aspirations in that direction, while by all accounts she was very attractive. As for the disadvantage of her being within the forbidden degree of consanguinity, the Church might be prevailed on to provide a dispensation for reasons of state.

During the seventeenth century Sir George Buck claimed to have seen a letter (now lost) from Elizabeth to the Duke of Norfolk in which the Princess expressed enthusiasm for Richard’s proposal even before the Queen had died. Vergil, on the other hand, insists that Elizabeth ‘abhored’ the prospect. Nonetheless, her mother, the Queen Dowager – who, together with her daughters, had left sanctuary in the spring of 1484 – may well have welcomed Richard as a prospective son-in-law. Indeed, so eloquently did she urge her brother, the Marquess of Dorset, to leave Henry Tudor and make his peace with the King that he had to be forcibly prevented from returning to England. Rumours of such a marriage, Vergil informs us, ‘pinched Henry by the very stomach’. If it took place, he might well lose all his Yorkist supporters.

The fifteenth-century English did not care for incest. Even that brutal ruffian and alleged rapist Sir Thomas Malory tells us, in Le Morte d’Arthur, how when Sir Mordred wanted to marry Queen Guenever, who was his aunt, the Archbishop of Canterbury cursed him with bell, book and candle for making ‘a foul work in this land’.

Finally, his chief advisers, ‘Mr Ratcliffe and Mr Catesby’, warned the King that if he proceeded with the marriage then even his trusted northerners would rise in rebellion against him. At their advice he then submitted to one of the greatest public humiliations suffered by any English king. The records of the Mercers’ Company recount how on 30 March the Mayor and citizens of London were summoned to the hall of the Knights of St John at Clerkenwell to hear King Richard complain of rumours that the Queen had been poisoned in order that he might marry Elizabeth. He denied that he had been glad of his wife’s death or that he had ever meant to marry his niece. (Clearly some mercers must have been present at Clerkenwell to hear this sensational speech – no doubt Mr Lambert was among them, as a Freeman of the City of London and as the proud father-in-law of the King’s Solicitor.)

* * *

Meanwhile, from France Henry was sending letters to as many important Englishmen as possible. Naturally most of such dangerous communications were destroyed, for reasons of self-preservation, but a single example has survived. ‘Right trusty, worshipful and honourable good friends, I greet you well,’ begins Henry, who assumes that he is going to have the recipients’ support in ‘the just depriving of that homicide and unnatural tyrant which now unjustly bears dominion over you.’ As soon as they will inform ‘your poor exiled friend’ when they are ready to fight for him and how many men they can bring with them, he is prepared to invade England. If he is successful, then ‘I shall ever be most forward to remember and wholly to requite this your great and most loving kindness in my just quarrel.’ He signs himself ‘H.R.’ – Henricus Rex.

In June 1485 Richard responded with a characteristic proclamation against ‘Piers [Courtenay], bishop of Exeter, Jasper Tudor, son of Owen Tudor calling himself earl of Pembroke, John, late earl of Oxon and Sir Richard Woodville with other divers rebels and traitors . . . of whom many be known for open murderers, adulterers and extortioners’. They have chosen for their captain

one Henry Tydder, son of Edmond Tydder, son of Owen Tydder, which of his ambitiousness and insatiable covetise encroacheth and usurpeth upon him the name and title of royal estate of this realm of England, whereunto he has no manner interest, right, title or colour, as every man well knoweth. For he is descended of bastard blood, both of father side and of mother side, for the said Owen the grandfather was bastard born; and his mother was daughter unto John, duke of Somerset, son unto John, earl of Somerset, son unto Dame Katherine Swynford, and of their double adultery gotten . . .

Henry and his followers were planning ‘to do the most cruel murders, slaughters and robberies and disherisons that ever were seen in any Christian realm’. Fortunately for England, however, ‘our said sovereign lord, as a well-willed, diligent and courageous prince will put his most royal person to all labour and pain necessary . . . for the resistance and subduing of his said enemies, rebels and traitors, to the most comfort, weal and surety of all his true and faithful liegemen and subjects.’

The Bishop of Ely was not among the rebels listed in the proclamation. It seems that despite Dr Morton having ignored a royal pardon, Richard still hoped to win him over from Henry Tudor. The King may have been encouraged by the knowledge that the Bishop had not yet joined his rival’s court in Paris.

In Vergil’s phrase, King Richard ‘was overwhelmed by pinching cares on every hand’. Almost each week, some gentleman of standing was reported to have gone to France to join Henry; the fugitives included Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother John, Lord Welles. And it was painfully clear to the King that his rival must have many more secret supporters who had stayed behind. Among these, according to Vergil, were the Stanleys. Although Richard did not know their ‘inward mind’, he trusted none of them, ‘and Thomas Stanley least of all because he had in marriage Henry’s mother’. But the King dared not crush Thomas out of hand since he was one of the key magnates who formed his regime’s perilously narrow power-base.

Dr Morton was far from being overwhelmed by pinching cares. He had so few that during the winter of 1484–85 he made a pilgrimage to Rome, accompanied by his nephew Robert (whom Richard had dismissed from his post as Master of the Rolls) and Dr Oliver King. The latter was another senior Yorkist official who had chosen not to serve Richard III; formerly secretary to Edward IV and Edward V, one day he would be secretary to Henry VII. Just how three supposedly penniless refugees were able to find the money for their trip remains a mystery – during the fifteenth century a pilgrimage to Rome was an expensive business. However, on 31 January 1485 John Morton became a member of the Fraternity of the Holy Spirit in Rome, signing its register.4 So far as politics were concerned, he was prepared to wait on events. He did not have to wait very long.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!