Post-classical history


The Rise of the Tudors

But who will insane lust for power spare …?


16 : To Execute Wrath

The fourteen-year-old boy travelled through south Wales alongside his forty-year-old uncle and a band of loyal retainers, making their way towards unstable country, thick with woods and pocked with the turrets of glowering castles. They were heading for the estuary of the river Severn, hoping to make contact with Queen Margaret and Prince Edward, and to reinforce the Lancastrian army aiming to destroy the Yorkist pretender who called himself Edward IV. The boy and the man both knew that if they could join forces with the queen, then they stood an excellent chance of victory. Ten years of exile, insurgency and plot would finally be rewarded with a return to rule. Reaching the river valley was the most important mission of their lives.

Both were well acquainted with the perils that they faced. The man was a veteran of England’s wars: a skilled soldier with a fondness and talent for insurgent fighting. The boy had also seen his share of violence. His father had died a prisoner before he was even born. Then he had been brought up from the age of four as a captive – albeit a generously treated and well-schooled captive – in the heavily armed Yorkist castle at Raglan. He had been under the wardship of William Herbert, earl of Pembroke, who had bought him for £1,000, provided him with brilliant tutors and groomed him for marriage into the Herbert family. When he was twelve years old Herbert had taken him to the battle of Edgecote, to see and hear for the first time the ghastliness of men being hacked down in their hundreds. Herbert had perished there, at Edgecote: beheaded after the battle was through. The boy knew, therefore, the thin line that lay between living and dying, triumph and catastrophe. ‘This world’, as the old poem had it, ‘is variable.’1

And so it proved. They had just passed Chepstow when the dreadful news arrived. The slaughter at Tewkesbury had spared no one: the queen was captured, the prince was dead, and so too were many of their allies, from Somerset and Lord Wenlock to the scores of loyal retainers who had risen up to fight for the Lancastrian right to rule. Tewkesbury was a disaster that exceeded even the horror of Towton. Edward and his brothers were triumphant. The boy and the man now knew that soon they would be targets. To march further was futile. The only rational plan now was to flee, as fast as they possibly could. Henry Tudor and his uncle Jasper halted their march and bolted for safety.

Since Chepstow was the nearest town, it was there that the Tudors went first, taking with them a part of the armed force that Jasper had raised during the earlier months of 1471. Chepstow was a relatively secure fortress town, protected by city walls and the natural defences of the river Wye, and overlooked by a large turreted castle built on the densely forested hills that rose above the town. Here the Tudors paused. Jasper tried to make sense of the fact that Edward IV had ‘utterly overthrown’ his half-brother the king, and debated with his friends ‘what course was best to take’.2 He did not need long to deliberate. In a bid to exterminate whatever was left of the house of Lancaster, Edward IV sent out Sir Roger Vaughan – a veteran of Mortimer’s Cross, where Jasper’s father Owen Tudor had been captured and executed – with a licence to kill. Vaughan was described as a ‘very valiant man’; fortunately for the Tudors he was not so skilled in the art of survival as Jasper. Having received advance warning that Vaughan was on his way, the elder Tudor set up an ambush in Chepstow. Vaughan was captured when he entered the town, and Jasper avenged his father’s death by having the gentleman beheaded. But there was scarcely time to take satisfaction. More royal agents were closing in, and the Tudors retreated in all haste to Pembroke on the west coast of Wales, where they were ‘besieged, and kept in with ditch and trench [so] that [they] might not escape’.

In happier times during the 1450s, when Jasper had himself been earl of Pembroke and the premier nobleman in south Wales, this great coastal town had been the seat of his power. It was where Henry Tudor had first seen the world, when he was born to thirteen-year-old Margaret Beaufort on 28 January 1457. It was a place that had traditionally been very close to Tudor hearts. Now, though, it was a prison. Their tormentor was the late Sir Roger Vaughan’s son-in-law, Morgan Thomas. The Thomas family had a long tradition of supporting the Lancastrian cause, but Jasper’s decision to kill Vaughan had pushed his son to the other side. For more than a week he kept Jasper and Henry pinned down, cut off from supplies and finding it desperately difficult to communicate with their supporters.

Fortunately, not all of the Thomas family had lost their faith. Morgan Thomas had been camped in front of Pembroke for more than a week when he was attacked by his brother David, who brought a force of two thousand men before the town walls and distracted the besiegers just long enough for Jasper and Henry to slip out of the gates and flee again, this time four miles across the south-western peninsula to ‘a town by the sea side’ called Tenby. This little port town was just as well protected as Pembroke – indeed, Jasper had once helped to reinforce its defences. It was strong enough, at any rate, to keep Edward IV’s forces at bay for a couple of months while the Tudors hired a barque (a small sailing boat with three masts) and corresponded with the French court, asking for assistance and in return promising to ‘keep up the war and disturbance’ for as long as they could. But eventually their position became untenable. In mid-September 1471 the Tudors faced the inevitable and made arrangements to leave Wales for the continent. Taking with them a skeleton crew of friends and servants, they piled into Jasper’s hired barque, cast out from the shore and trusted their lives to the sea. The Channel stretching out before them churned with storms.3


When the Tudors sailed for France, they left Edward IV finally and indisputably master of his kingdom. He was still a young man – the battle of Tewkesbury took place only a few days after his twenty-ninth birthday – and he set about rebuilding his realm with his usual energetic bonhomie. A growing brood of young children by his wife Elizabeth suggested a healthy future for Edward’s royal line. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, was six; her sisters Mary and Cecily were three and two. Their brother, Edward, had been born in sanctuary in November 1470 and was still a tiny baby, but he was heir to the crown all the same. On 11 June 1471 the seven-month-old was created prince of Wales and earl of Chester in a ceremony at Westminster Abbey, followed by investiture somewhat later as duke of Cornwall. Less than a month later, on 3 July, a great council met at Westminster, where forty-seven archbishops, bishops, dukes, earls, barons and knights all swore on the gospels that they would acknowledge Prince Edward as ‘true and undoubted heir to our … sovereign lord, as to the crowns and realms of England and of France and the lordship of Ireland’.4 Edward and Elizabeth would produce six more children during the next nine years: Margaret, born in April 1472; Richard duke of York in August 1473; Anne in November 1475; George duke of Bedford, who was born in March 1477 but died at the age of two; and finally Catherine in August 1479 and Bridget in November 1480. All but George would survive their earliest years, creating a large and youthful family around the king.

One of Edward’s first actions of his second reign was to set out a long list of protocols and ordinances for his household and those of his children. His fondness for the glittering and ritualised court of his brother-in-law Charles duke of Burgundy had only been increased by the months he had spent exiled in the Low Countries at a court which John Paston thought was second only to King Arthur’s.5 A long instruction manual for the organisation of an English king’s domestic and ceremonial life, called the Black Book, was produced by 1472.6 In it was set out every tiny detail of propriety and protocol in the royal presence, the deference due to visitors of every rank, and the rations due to servants and officials, no matter how lowly. The Black Book contained everything from the number of loaves, ale-flagons, candles and faggots of firewood that should be given to a baron residing at the royal court, to the precise means by which the king’s tablecloth should be folded and presented when he sat to dine in the company of his subjects. It described a court whose splendour would match that of any English court before it and which would impress any foreign visitor with its command of fashion and princely worship. This was more than simply a Burgundian copycat court: it was a royal establishment that was singularly, dazzlingly English, harking back to the glorious days of the king’s mighty fourteenth-century ancestor Edward III.7 Its style and grandiloquence was matched in the building works that began in Edward IV’s second reign, not least in his reconstruction of the chapel of the college of St George at Windsor, the spiritual home of the Order of the Garter, which became a soaring masterpiece of gothic architecture, furnished with elaborately carved choir stalls, decorated with brilliant statues and stained-glass windows and stocked with ornate vestments for the use of the clergy of the college. Edward spent £6,572 in five years on works to improve Windsor, at the same time undertaking extensive reconstruction of the fortresses and palaces at Calais, Nottingham, Westminster, Greenwich, Eltham and the York family seat in the midlands, Fotheringhay.

Besides erecting fine buildings and marshalling the royal household, there was a kingdom to run. The deaths of Warwick, Montague and several other rebels left swathes of land to be reassigned in south-west England, the west midlands and the north. Edward also voluntarily reclaimed lands and offices that had previously been alienated from the Crown by passing an act of resumption in parliament in 1473. This was a tool that he had used before in 1461, 1463 and 1467 – and one which had the double benefit of fortifying royal finances while allowing the scope for cheap patronage by granting exemptions. Edward approached the problem of redistributing land, titles, offices and authority like a political jigsaw puzzle: fitting together sensitive areas of the country under the leadership of men whom he thought he could trust, most of whom came from the family circle. Lands in Devon, Cornwall and the south-west fell to the king’s stepson, Thomas Grey, who became marquess of Dorset by 1475. The late Lord Herbert’s son and namesake William Herbert became earl of Pembroke and was initially trusted to oversee Wales before the role was taken over by a council under the authority of the young Edward, who had been awarded the traditional heir’s titles of prince of Wales and earl of Chester.8 The prince’s council operated from the old Yorkist seat of Ludlow, on the borders, and its power in Wales was operated by the queen and her brother, Earl Rivers.

Warwick’s huge estates, which, had he died naturally, would have gone to his brother Montague and his two daughters, were largely split between the king’s brothers.9 In the midlands, the unreliable Clarence was entrusted with land and a limited degree of autonomy and power, but his authority was eventually overtaken by that of Edward’s great friend, servant, military captain and companion, William, Lord Hastings. Edward kept a measure of direct control on the midlands, later marrying his second son, Richard duke of York, to the daughter of the duke of Norfolk, who had interests in the region. A patchwork quilt of delegated royal authority was being stitched together, connecting the king’s children, brothers and extended family in a way that had not been attempted since the heyday of Edward III.10 At the centre of it all the king remained sharp, interested and focused on the business of government. He was capable in an argument of demonstrating intimate knowledge of politics to a remarkably local level. He appointed men connected to his household to serve as local justices of the peace and sheriffs, to sit on the itinerant judicial commissions known as ‘oyer and terminer’ (‘to hear and to judge’) and to do the work of the royal council in the regions.11 The fingers of direct royal power spread deeper than at any time in living memory into the shires of England. One chronicler observed that the dominance of royal officials controlling the governance of ‘castles, forests, manors and parks’ was such that ‘no person, however shrewd he might be’ could commit any offence without being ‘immediately charged with the same to his face’. Gradually, the machinery necessary for keeping law and order in the realm was being rebuilt.

Edward’s reconstruction of England and of English royal power relied heavily on the use of tough and trusted lieutenants, and few were more trusted after 1471 than his youngest brother, Richard duke of Gloucester. He was awarded the Neville estates in northern England, a perpetually troubled and dangerous area of the country, bordering the unpredictable enemy kingdom of Scotland. It required a leader of unimpeachable loyalty, military skill, courage and cunning, characteristics he had displayed over the course of the recent crises. To bolster his position, in 1472 Gloucester was married to Warwick’s younger daughter, Anne Neville. (His brother Clarence had, of course, married Anne’s elder sister, Isabel, during his rebellion in 1469.) Gloucester was also awarded huge tracts of land from the duchy of Lancaster, the honour of Richmond (which had once belonged to Henry Tudor’s father Edmund) and effective seniority over Henry Percy, the earl of Northumberland. He held land in Wales and East Anglia, as well as serving as constable and admiral of England.

Still only twenty-two years old in 1472, Richard of Gloucester was beginning to suffer noticeably from scoliosis, a curvature of the spine which caused him to walk with his right shoulder raised and his back hunched, and may have given him pain and shortness of breath.12 In later years a German visitor to England, Nicolas von Poppelau, would remark that although Richard was tall (he stood five foot eight inches, not as tall as his brother Edward, but large by the standard of the day), he was lean, with delicate arms and legs. Whatever Richard’s physical shortcomings, they did not diminish his standing either in his brother’s eyes or anyone else’s: during the 1470s he was roundly acclaimed as the most senior military man in England under the king, an effective prince in the north and Edward IV’s foremost and most trusted lieutenant. He had, said von Poppelau, ‘a great heart’.13

The same could not be said of George duke of Clarence. He was chief among those who benefited from Edward IV’s preference for conciliation and mercy, and had been treated with extraordinary generosity, considering his pivotal role in the crisis that had forced his brother from the throne in the first place. Clarence had extensive territories in the midlands and was, with Gloucester, among the first to profit from the death of the earl of Warwick. But the partition of the Warwick estates caused a good amount of friction between Clarence and Gloucester from 1472 until 1474 – friction that translated on the ground into disorder throughout the midlands and a growing headache for the king. Edward had indulged his feckless younger brother for many years, tolerating the most appalling and disloyal behaviour, but eventually he came to realise that Clarence was never likely to redeem himself and become the dependable and astute kinsman on whom so much of his royal policy was founded. The duke’s final fall from grace would be spectacular, even by the standards of this ruthless, pitiless age.


On Friday 16 January 1478 the great men of England assembled in the Painted Chamber at the palace of Westminster for the opening of parliament. The large room was decorated in every available space with faded murals of biblical and historical scenes arranged in six large horizontal strips, rising to the very top of the thirty-foot walls: the stories depicted included those of King David, the Maccabees and the destruction of the Temple. Elsewhere were huge seven-foot figures representing the Virtues standing victorious over Sins, angels bearing crowns swooping above the windows and a sublime rendering of St Edward the Confessor on his coronation day.14 Amid all this splendour, sitting on his royal throne was King Edward IV. Before him were the representatives of his subjects and ready to address them was the chancellor of England, Thomas Rotherham, bishop of Lincoln.

The bishop took as his theme two texts: the first from the Old Testament and the second from the New. The first was the famous Psalm 23: Dominus regit me et nihil mihi deerit – ‘The Lord rules me, I shall want for nothing.’15 The Lord, explained Rotherham, was the protector of his people. He was the essence of their salvation and it was, in turn, their absolute duty to obey their master. This brought the bishop on to his second text, the letter of St Paul to the Romans, in which he warned his correspondents that ‘the king does not carry the sword without cause’.16 This ominous passage explains that those who resist righteous power will be damned, and that in bearing the sword, a godly king is appointed as ‘an avenger to execute wrath on evildoers’. The bishop concluded his remarks by returning, pointedly, to the psalm, and reminding his audience that ‘if the Lord will rule them they will lack nothing but he will put them to graze in pasture’. It was obvious to everyone assembled in the Painted Chamber on that winter morning precisely what Thomas Rotherham had in mind.

The duke of Clarence was in the Tower of London and had been there for more than six months. Around 10 June, he had been summoned to an audience with the king, the mayor and the aldermen of London. Edward had upbraided him in person before commanding that he be thrown in jail. It was no secret that the king and his wayward middle brother looked on one another ‘with no very fraternal eyes’. Nevertheless, there was something sensational about a king summarily imprisoning his closest adult relative and preparing to put him on trial before the lords in parliament.

Clarence’s behaviour had been problematic for some time. His feud with Gloucester over the division of the Warwick and Neville estates between 1472 and 1474 had almost resulted in armed confrontation and had certainly not helped Edward to stabilise the realm following his return to the throne. The deal that Edward imposed in 1474 to bring this quarrel to an end had settled on both men handsome portions of the lands they craved, but it had left Clarence highly dissatisfied.17 He did ‘more and more to estrange himself from the king’s presence’, sulking in silence through council meetings and refusing to eat or drink in the king’s company. His rage was that of a middle child overtaken by a prodigious younger brother. Gloucester was emerging as the king’s hand in the north and his most trusted magnate, whereas Clarence was humiliated: Edward had taken away his favourite manor and ducal seat at Tutbury in Staffordshire, and also refused to allow him to exercise his military duties as lieutenant of Ireland.

Personal matters had also served to inflame the brotherly resentment. When Gloucester married Anne Neville in 1472, she immediately conceived and in the course of time bore him a son, Edward of Middleham. Clarence’s marital experience was markedly less happy. In December 1476, his wife Isabel died at the age of twenty-five. She left two children, Margaret and Edward, who would survive to adulthood, but her death made a terrible mark on her husband. It is probable that Isabel died from the after-effects of childbirth, but this was not the way it seemed to Clarence. Perhaps because he was driven mad by grief, perhaps simply because he was constitutionally vindictive, short-sighted and unwise, he determined to take revenge for his wife’s death. At two o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday 12 April 1477 a mob of eighty ‘riotous and misgoverned persons’ loyal to the duke descended on the manor of Cayford in Somerset and seized a woman by the name of Ankarette Twynho, who had once been a personal servant of Duchess Isabel. Effectively abducted, Twynho was whisked across the country at great speed, from Cayford to Bath, from Bath to Cirencester and from Cirencester to Warwick, where she arrived as dark was falling on Monday 14 April and was locked in a cell. At six o’clock the following morning the wretched woman was dragged to the Guildhall in Warwick, where Clarence sat in personal judgement as she was accused of having killed Isabel by giving her ‘a venomous drink of ale mixed with poison’. It was plainly a ludicrous charge (not least because the crime had supposedly taken place on 10 October 1477, more than two months before the duchess had actually died) but Clarence ensured that within three hours of reaching the Guildhall, Ankarette Twynho had been presented to the court, indicted for murder, tried, found guilty, dragged through the streets of Warwick and hanged. There was no semblance of justice: indeed, several of the jurors who were browbeaten into delivering a guilty verdict apparently approached Twynho with ‘great remorse in their conscience, knowing they had given an untrue verdict’ and ‘piteously asked forgiveness’ before the unlucky lady was put to death.18

This would have been a serious indiscretion in its own right – to subvert the judicial process and kill innocent people was no way for a duke of the royal blood to behave. But it would most likely have been forgiven, were it not for Clarence’s subsequent intervention in another, far more serious criminal case.

This second case involved three men – a fellow and a chaplain of Merton College, Oxford by the names of Master John Stacey and Thomas Blake and a brutish, violent midlands landowner called Thomas Burdet, who were arrested and charged with predicting the king’s death by sorcery. During the mid-fifteenth century the phenomena of witchcraft, alchemy, astrology and sorcery were taken very seriously – they had after all been instrumental thirty years previously in bringing down Humphrey duke of Gloucester through his wife Eleanor Cobham. The men were charged before a court composed of some of England’s most senior noblemen with having attempted to predict the death dates of Edward IV and his eldest son, so that ‘the King, by knowledge of the same, would be saddened … so that his life would be thereby shortened’. All three were found guilty. On 19 May 1477 Burdet and Stacey were drawn on a hurdle to Tyburn and hanged, pleading their innocence as they stood on the scaffold. Blake was pardoned, and that would have been the end of it – if Clarence had not decided to intervene, for, intriguingly, Burdet had been one of his servants. Two days after the hangings, Clarence marched into a council meeting, read out declarations of innocence on behalf of the dead men and promptly marched out again. Even if Burdet’s association with Clarence had not cast suspicion on the duke, his headstrong defence of a convicted traitor most certainly did.

These, then, were the events that had convinced Edward IV in the summer of 1477 that Clarence was too dangerous to be left alone. The first sign of royal displeasure came in the king’s explicit refusal to allow Clarence to marry again. Edward IV ‘threw allpossible impediments in the way’ of potential matches with either Mary of Burgundy (the only heir of Charles the Bold following the Burgundian duke’s death in 1477) or Margaret Stewart, sister of James III of Scotland.19 Ill-feeling between Edward and Clarence began to burn from this point: stoked, according to one chronicler, by ‘flatterers running to and fro, from the one side to the other, and carrying backwards and forwards the words which had fallen from the two brothers, even if they had happened to be spoken in the most secret closet’.20

When the January 1478 parliament assembled before the king in the Painted Chamber, it was clear to everyone in it that the duke’s time was up. The autumn preceding parliament’s meeting had been passed by those around the king – principally his Woodville relatives – in building a case against Clarence which extended far beyond the affronts to justice, judicial process and political common sense committed in the aftermath of his wife’s death. All of the duke’s past misdemeanours had been bundled together in a package of damnable crimes that could be deployed to destroy him. Parliament, when it was called, was packed with retainers, servants and associates of the king and queen. Over the next months, as proceedings took place in Westminster Abbey, it witnessed an extraordinary, ruthless piece of political drama in which Edward IV, unsupported by any other legal counsel, delivered a personal case against his brother. ‘Not a single person uttered a word against the duke, except the king,’ wrote one chronicler, who also noted that Clarence was refused the right of attorney in his defence: ‘Not one individual made answer to the king except the duke.’ Witnesses were called, but they struck observers as royal stooges. It was plain from the beginning that Clarence was doomed. Outside Westminster, the king had scheduled a series of lavish parties and pageants to celebrate the marriage of his four-year-old second son Richard duke of York to the six-year-old Anne Mowbray, sole heiress to the duke of Norfolk. The large royal family, dominated by Woodvilles and their noble spouses, feasted and made merry, while inside a tense parliament chamber, Clarence was systematically destroyed by his own brother.

Eventually and inevitably, early in February 1478 proceedings were wound up and Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham – the king’s brother-in-law through his marriage to Catherine Woodville – stood in parliament and delivered a verdict. Clarence was convicted of treason, having been adjudged guilty on a bewildering array of charges, which were enumerated in a bill of attainder later passed against him. He was held to have engaged in a ‘conspiracy against [the king], the queen, their son and heir and a great part of the nobility of the land’. Ignoring the fact that Edward had ‘always loved and generously rewarded’ him, he had ‘grievously offended the king in the past, procuring his exile from the realm and labouring parliament to exclude him and his heirs from the crown. All of which the king forgave, but the duke continued to conspire against him, intending his destruction by both internal and external forces.’ Then came the list of specific crimes.

[The duke] sought to turn [Edward’s] subjects against him by saying that Thomas Burdet was falsely put to death and that the king resorted to necromancy. He also said that the king was a bastard, not fit to reign, and made men take oaths of allegiance to him without excepting their loyalty to the king. He accused the king of taking his livelihood from him, and intending his destruction. He secured an exemplification under the great seal of an agreement made between him and Queen Margaret promising him the crown if Henry VI’s line failed. He planned to send his son and heir abroad to win support, bringing a false child to Warwick castle in his place. He planned to raise war against the king within England and made men promise to be ready at an hour’s notice. The duke has thus shown himself incorrigible and to pardon him would threaten the common weal, which the king is bound to maintain.21

The bill of attainder noted that the duke was convicted of high treason. It was signed by Edward’s own hand.

The king dithered for a few days about whether to carry out the sentence that his brother’s supposed crimes demanded. But eventually the parliamentary commons complained about the delay, and on 18 February George duke of Clarence was put to death in the Tower of London. The exact method of death has never been established, but a long tradition holds that he was plunged head first into a barrel of malmsey wine and drowned.22 His bones were later buried at Tewkesbury Abbey. It was an unfortunate end for a man who in life had been a feckless nuisance and an ingrate. He died the victim of his own rashness. Edward rued his brother’s death and made many expensive provisions to tie up his finances and estate, but his reign was the more secure for Clarence’s removal. By 1479 almost every threat to the rule of the house of York – both external and internal – had been erased. There was only one man left who posed even the vaguest challenge to the dynastic security of the English crown. Far away across the sea, Henry Tudor still survived, a dim beacon for the Lancastrian cause. But in 1478 he could hardly have seemed less dangerous to Edward IV, the king who had amply demonstrated what St Paul had once told the Romans: ‘They that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.’23

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