Post-classical history




This chapter introduces the five, explaining who they were and why I have chosen them. They consist of a squire and a nobleman (both of whom fought in decisive battles), a great lady, a priest and a ‘harlot’. I would have liked to have included someone from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’, but sadly the period has left too little documentation about common folk, so I have had to make do with the harlot.

The choice is far from arbitrary. All five of them were united in opposing Richard III and, as will be seen, the most dramatic events in each of their careers – in one case fatal – resulted from their opposition to him. All come most sharply into focus during his reign; at one stage or another King Richard publicly accused each of the five of plotting against him, while at least three played key roles in initiating the expedition that finally defeated and killed him at Bosworth. At the same time, however, these are also peoplewho can only be understood within the wider context of the Wars of the Roses as a whole, the upheaval that shaped their lives.

If ever the Yorkists produced a hero, it was William Hastings (c. 1430–83). He began his career as a mere squire and a ‘household man’ of the Duke of York, but after Edward IV’s triumphant seizure of the throne in 1461 he was swiftly transformed into a peer, a great landowner and Lord Chamberlain.

As King Edward’s best friend, this brave and charming courtier-soldier soon became the most influential man in England, building up an enormous personal following. In his History of King Richard the Third, the Tudor statesman and saint Sir Thomas More gives us a portrait of William Hastings which resembles some knight errant out of the pages of the Morte d’Arthur – honourable and chivalrous, deeply admired by everyone who knew him, despite a private life verging on the dissolute. He had a notably distinguished military record. In 1461 his timely arrival with reinforcements ensured that the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross was a Yorkist victory, while he was knighted on the field at Towton for his conduct; in 1471 he commanded the Yorkists’ left wing at the Battle of Barnet and then their right wing at the Battle of Tewkesbury.

Hastings was the one man who might have saved the young Edward V in 1483 from the ambitions of his uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Realizing that Hastings was incorruptible, Richard mounted a coup and ordered his immediate execution. He had been one of the most colourful figures to emerge during the entire Wars of the Roses.

His brother-in-law John de Vere, Earl of Oxford (1443–1513), was as unshakeably Lancastrian as Hastings was Yorkist. He was the head of England’s most ancient noble family, a rare example of a great family that stayed loyal to the House of Lancaster throughout the Wars. He too was something of a hero, a fine soldier with a shrewd grasp of strategy and tactics.

Determined to avenge the deaths of his father and elder brother, who had been executed for plotting against the Yorkist regime, in 1469 Lord Oxford joined the Earl of Warwick’s rebellion against Edward IV. Two years later, when commanding the Lancastrian right wing at Barnet, he routed Hastings, but as his men were returning from the pursuit their own side fired on them by mistake – an error that lost the battle. Fleeing abroad, Oxford turned pirate, and then in 1473 occupied St Michael’s Mount on the Cornish coast. Surrendering, he was imprisoned for the next ten years at the Castle of Hammes near Calais; on one occasion he jumped from the battlements, trying to escape or to kill himself. During his imprisonment his wife had to support herself by sewing, while Gloucester bullied his aged mother into handing over everything she possessed.

Eventually Oxford succeeded in breaking free and was able to fight for Henry Tudor at Bosworth in 1485, where his tactics helped to defeat Richard III. Two years later, he commanded Henry VII’s victorious army at Stoke, the final battle of the Wars. As Bacon puts it, the Earl of Oxford always remained the new Tudor king’s ‘principal servant for both war and peace’.

Save for the period’s prejudice against women rulers, Lady Margaret Beaufort (1443–1509), half mystic and half dynast, might well have become Queen of England in her own right, as the last member of the Beaufort family (the bastard but legitimized branch of the House of Lancaster) with a claim to the throne which she passed on to her son Henry Tudor.

Marrying Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, at the age of twelve, Margaret was still only thirteen when she gave birth to the future Henry VII. It was she who, with the aid of Dr Morton, forged the vital alliance between Lancastrians and Yorkists that eventually toppled Richard III. She helped to finance her son’s invasions in 1483–85, while her fourth husband, Lord Stanley, betrayed Richard decisively at Bosworth. She then became the richest woman in England.

Most ladies were unable to play anything other than a passive role during the Wars of the Roses. Margaret Beaufort was one of the two magnificent exceptions – the other being Margaret of Anjou, Henry VI’s tigress of a queen.

Although very few of the higher clergy were caught up in the Wars, generally prefering to stay prudently aloof, Dr John Morton (c. 1420–1500), the son of a Dorset squire, was a rare example of a political ecclesiastic – a loyal Lancastrian who turned loyal Yorkist. Ironically, the success of his clerical career owed a good deal to his secular activities.

As one of Henry VI’s lawyer-bureaucrats, Morton was among those responsible for the murderous legislation at the Parliament of Devils in 1459 – designed to exterminate the Duke of York and his party. Captured by the Yorkists after the Battle of Towton, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London, but escaped to Flanders. Besieged in a Northumbrian clifftop castle in 1462, he survived to live as a penniless exile at Queen Margaret’s little Lancastrian court in Lorraine. Returning to England in 1470, he was again taken prisoner by the Yorkists after Tewkesbury.

When it seemed that the Lancastrian cause was dead, Dr Morton transferred his allegiance to the Yorkists. He served Edward IV faithfully. Once more imprisoned in the Tower after Richard of Gloucester’s coup, he was placed in the Duke of Buckingham’s custody but persuaded the Duke to rebel against King Richard. When Buckingham’s rebellion failed, Dr Morton hid in the Fens before escaping to Flanders, from where he was somehow able to warn Henry Tudor that the Bretons were planning to sell him to King Richard.

John Morton ended his long life as a cardinal, Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of Oxford University and Henry VII’s Lord Chancellor of England. In the writings of Thomas More, who was clearly devoted to the old man’s memory, he is portrayed as an extremely formidable yet very likeable elder statesman.

Jane Shore (c. 1450–c. 1527), whose real name was Elizabeth Lambert,*1 is the first ordinary Englishwoman recognizable as a human being from contemporary sources, from More’s King Richard. (Sir Thomas knew her well by sight when she was an old woman and he may have spoken with her at length.) Since she does not come on to the scene until fairly late in the Wars, I have included the story of her father, John Lambert, a London alderman who was a staunch Yorkist and lent money to King Edward. Politically he was active enough for his brother-in-law to accuse him of having been seriously disloyal to Henry VI.

Although Richard III made Jane do public penance as a harlot and go barefoot through the City of London in her shift, for most of her life she was a thoroughly respectable married woman. However, as the mistress of Edward IV, then of his friend Hastings and then of his stepson the Marquess of Dorset, she knew intimately some of the most powerful men in England – at the cost of her reputation and of two spells in prison.

Ironically, she regained respectability by taking King Richard’s solicitor Thomas Lynom for her second husband.

* Contemporaries refer merely to ‘Shore’s wife’ or ‘Mrs Shore’, while the first mention of her as ‘Jane’ dates only from 1599. Yet it is by no means impossible that she used the name in preference to Elizabeth, so I have called her ‘Jane’ throughout – that is how she has gone down in history. I have also called her ‘Mrs Shore’ instead of ‘Mistress’ – just as I have used ‘Mr’ instead of ‘Master’ throughout – so as to avoid giving too archaic an impression.

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