Post-classical history

17 : The Only Imp Now Left

Jasper and Henry Tudor had washed up on the shores of western Brittany, in the little fishing port of Le Conquet, in the middle of September 1471. Their crossing was rough and troubled by storms, but the wind was kind in blowing their barque ashore in the territory of Duke Francis II of Brittany. Francis was a clever politician and a courteous host. When Jasper and Henry found their way to his court he treated them ‘very handsomely for prisoners’, which was what they now were.1 The Tudors would remain at the duke’s mercy for more than a decade.

As Edward rebuilt England, across the sea Jasper and Henry lived the lives of honourable fugitives. Francis’s ducal seat was the Château de l’Hermine at Vannes: a grand, well-fortified palace equipped with fine stables, tennis courts and its own mint. Having submitted to Francis’s authority, the Tudors were treated with ‘honour, courtesy, and favour’ and entertained as though ‘they had been [the duke’s] brothers’. The duke promised that they should be free to ‘pass as their pleasure to and fro without danger’. But manifestly that was not the case. In October 1472 the Tudors were moved from Vannes into the possession of Jean du Quelennec, the admiral of Brittany, who kept them at his château of Suscinio, a small but stunning moated hideaway on a peninsula between the ocean and the bay of Morbihan. Later, when it was feared that Suscinio was too vulnerable to a kidnapping raid from the sea, they were moved to Nantes. Here the men would become political pawns in the diplomatic intrigues that took place between Duke Francis, Louis XI of France and Edward IV.

Although Edward was busy in the 1470s with the pacification both of his kingdom and his brother, he never wholly forgot that the only remaining Lancastrian of any note was tantalisingly beyond his reach. Henry was, in the words of the Italian historian Polydore Vergil, ‘the only imp now left of Henry VI’s blood’, and the English king determined on numerous occasions to solicit his return from Brittany with ‘gift, promise and prayer’.2

He had a rival for Henry’s custody in Louis of France. The French king suspected, quite rightly, that possession of the Tudors would be a very useful stick with which to prod his English rival. Louis attempted to extract Jasper and Henry from Brittany in 1474, sending an ambassador, Guillaume Compaing, to argue that since Jasper was a pensioner of France (and cousin of Louis himself ) he and his nephew ought to be released into French custody. Francis refused, seeing in turn that possession of the Tudors was a stick with which he could prod France, but he agreed to move Jasper and Henry from Nantes. Early in 1474 Jasper was taken to the Château Josselin, twenty-five miles from Vannes, while Henry was placed in the newly constructed, maximum-security Château Largöet, under the watch of the marshal of Brittany, Jean de Rieux. He was imprisoned once again in luxury on the sixth floor of seven within the massive octagonal Tour d’Elven.3 Not for the first time in his life, the seventeen-year-old Henry Tudor was comfortable, but he was not going anywhere.

In June 1475 Edward IV invaded France with a large army, funded by English taxation on a scale that had not been seen since the time of Henry V. He declared himself, in time-honoured fashion, to be the king of France and duke of Normandy and Gascony, evoking the claims of all his Plantagenet predecessors since Henry II and Richard the Lionheart. Using a fleet of five hundred borrowed Dutch boats, he landed in Calais with as many as fifteen hundred men-at-arms, fifteen thousand archers and ‘besides a great number of foot-soldiers’. Even if we allow for exaggerations in the estimates, the English army was still thought by a close associate of the French king to be ‘the most numerous, the best disciplined, the best mounted and the best armed that any king of that nation invaded France withal’.4 Nevertheless, Edward found little support from either Burgundy or Brittany for his endeavour. After some minor and fruitless skirmishing the expedition was over by 29 August, when Louis XI and Edward met on the bridge over the river Somme in the town of Picquiny to thrash out the terms of a deal. Edward wrung from Louis a seven-year truce and a lavish pension. In comparison to the great campaigns of the Hundred Years War, which Edward was hoping to emulate, the 1475 invasion was a largely insignificant jaunt about the countryside, notable for little more than the fact that the king had managed, as he was wont, to collect a huge amount of tax without fighting the campaigns it was intended to fund. But the treaty of Picquiny also made the Tudors’ position a great deal more precarious, for under its terms Louis promised not to attack Brittany. Expecting that Duke Francis might be rather grateful, Edward renewed his attempts to wheedle Henry Tudor away from Brittany and bring him to justice in England, on the understanding that he would not be ill-treated. This time, he was very nearly successful. After a year, weary of being nagged, Francis agreed to repatriate his charge.

In November 1476 English ships bobbed in the waters off the Breton coast, ready to receive the prodigal Tudor. But when he was brought to the port of St Malo, Henry, ‘knowing that he was carried to his death, through agony of mind fell by the way into a fever’.5 Whether feigned, real or psychosomatic, this illness was enough to save him. He took sanctuary in one of St Malo’s churches in order to recover his health, and during the delay Duke Francis had a change of heart. He sent messengers summoning Henry back to the Château d’Hermine. Jasper joined him there from Josselin. The Tudors had narrowly escaped Edward’s attempts to recapture them. The king realised he would have to choose a different tactic if he wished to wipe out for good the last remaining threat to his throne.

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Back in England, Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, had trodden a more conciliatory course through the politics of the Yorkist restoration. Small of stature, shrewd and tough, Margaret was a very impressive woman. She was highly literate, a canny businesswoman and, above all, always mindful of her duty to protect what she could of her son’s inheritance and future. Despite the trauma she had suffered while giving birth to Henry in Pembroke Castle during the plague-swept winter of 1457 when she was only thirteen years old, she had gone on to marry twice since the death of her first husband, Edmund Tudor. In 1461 she married Henry Stafford, the second son of Humphrey Stafford, late duke of Buckingham. This had meant separation from her son when he was only four years old, although she had visited the boy at Raglan Castle during his youth. Henry VI’s readeption had permitted a brief reunion, and Margaret had taken the young Henry Tudor on a barge ride up the Thames to visit the king at Westminster. (Polydore Vergil recorded that the simple-minded old monarch had looked at the child and said, ‘This, truly, this is he unto whom both we and our adversaries must yield and give over the dominion,’ a cryptic statement to which Margaret would later assign great meaning.6) When Edward IV swept back into power, circumstance once again separated mother from son. Margaret’s first cousin Edmund duke of Somerset had been dragged out of sanctuary and beheaded following the battle of Tewkesbury, while her cousin John marquess of Dorset was killed during the fighting. Jasper and Henry had fled to the continent. Margaret had last seen Henry on 11 November 1470, but in all that time she had never stopped chasing means by which she could secure her own inheritance, consisting of a considerable body of land and income in the south of England and the midlands, and pass on what she could to her exiled only child.

Margaret’s husband, Stafford, died on 4 October 1471, having endured for six months bouts of illness and infirmity connected to wounds he had received fighting at the battle of Barnet. It was a mark of Margaret’s instinct for survival that she ignored the social protocol suggesting widows ought to observe a year’s mourning before remarriage. There is every sign that she had enjoyed an affectionate partnership with Stafford, but before he was even in the ground she had begun negotiations for a union with another baron of the realm: Thomas, second Lord Stanley, a northern magnate with extensive lands and power in the north-west and, more importantly, extremely good connections to the Yorkist court. When Edward IV formalised the lavish new arrangement of the royal household, he appointed Stanley as steward – the most prestigious post available, with regular access to the king and scope for all sorts of political intrigue. Stanley’s position in the household meant that he developed a close working relationship with the Woodvilles. Over the course of the 1470s, Lord Stanley and Lady Margaret were drawn close into the Yorkist family circle. At a splendid ceremony held in 1476 to rebury old Richard duke of York in the family mausoleum in Fotheringhay, Margaret attended Queen Elizabeth and her daughters. In 1480, when Bridget, the last of Edward IV and Elizabeth’s children, was born at Eltham, Margaret was permitted to carry the baby to the font during the christening. She walked at the head of a procession of one hundred knights and squires, all carrying torches, accompanied by the king’s eldest stepson, Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset.7 Little by little she was making her way into royal favour.

Margaret Beaufort’s slow but steady integration into the royal circle worked precisely as intended. After 1476, when the king had failed to drag Henry Tudor out of Brittany by diplomacy, he began to consider other means of neutralising what small threat the young man could pose. He turned to Stanley and Margaret to establish the grounds on which Henry could be brought home and knitted into the acceptable ranks of English society.

The first impediment to this was removed with the death of George duke of Clarence in the Tower of London. Clarence had held the lands of the earldom of Richmond – Edmund Tudor’s old title – and with this available there was an enticing bait to dangle in front of Henry, who could now be offered a return to England as a nobleman of the first rank. Prompted by the king, Margaret and Stanley began to work on the process by which that might be achieved: at some (unknown) point a royal pardon for Henry was drafted on the back of the letter that had originally created Edmund earl of Richmond in November 1452.8 At around the same time, there were discussions between Margaret and the king about the fact that their children were related within the degrees of kinship that prohibited marriage without papal consent: these were terms of discussion that would theoretically precede a marriage between Henry Tudor and one of the royal princesses. Finally, on 3 June 1482, a document was drawn up at Westminster in which Edward IV made an agreement with Stanley and Margaret concerning the disposal of estates belonging to Margaret’s mother. From these estates, Margaret was permitted to carve out a rich inheritance for Henry. The agreement granted that the young man would be allowed to inherit on condition that he returned to England ‘to be in the grace and favour of the king’s highness’. Edward’s seal was affixed to the document. The stage was set for Henry to come home – albeit to a home that by 1482 the twenty-five-year-old renegade had only known for a few months of his life. Then disaster struck.

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On 9 April 1483 Edward IV died in his bed at Westminster Palace. Although he was ‘neither worn out with old age nor yet seized with any known kind of malady’, he had become unwell following a fishing trip during the days leading up to Easter. A short and severe illness carried him from good health to death in less than a fortnight, three weeks before his forty-first birthday. In his youth a tall and a strikingly handsome man, by the time he reached early middle age he had become barrel-chested, fat and louche – facts that were noted by men inside and outside the kingdom. Years of increasingly debauched living had finally caught up with him.9 Feasting and fornication were the prerogative of kings, but even by royal standards, Edward had thrown himself wholeheartedly into excess. He had numerous mistresses (the most famous was Elizabeth Shore, a fast-tongued mercer’s daughter from London whom the king shared with Lord Hastings) and at least two illegitimate children by different mothers: there was a boy called Arthur Plantagenet, born to an obscure lady of the court around 1472 and much later created Lord Lisle, a daughter, Grace, and probably many more. Edward ‘loved to indulge himself in ease and pleasures’, wrote the historian and diplomat Philippe de Commines, who had seen the king in action at first hand during the peace negotiations of 1475.10 Polydore Vergil, who knew and interviewed many of Edward’s associates, observed that the king had been ‘given to bodily lust, whereunto he was of his own disposition inclined’.11 An even more vivid description was penned by the visiting Italian historian Dominic Mancini, who wrote of Edward that ‘in food and drink he was immoderate: it was his habit … to take an emetic for the delight of gorging his stomach once more … after his recovery of the crown, he had grown fat in the loins, whereas previously he had been not only tall but rather lean and very active.’12 Commines thought that the king had died of an apoplexy – which could mean anything from a stroke to a heart attack. It was said elsewherein Europe that the cause of death had been eating too many fruits and vegetables on Good Friday, although this was probably more a reflection of Edward’s famous girth than of medical science.13 We can speculate today that in view of his lifestyle, Edward may have been suffering chronic kidney disease, a fatal condition that only manifests itself in the acute final stages. Or perhaps he succumbed to a virus like influenza, which made its first significant appearances in England from the 1480s.14 We will never know.

All his fatness and loose living notwithstanding, Edward IV had been the most capable politician and most talented soldier to wear the English crown since Henry V. He had stamped out the vicious civil wars caused by the prolonged ineptitude of Henry VI, the bullheaded politicking of Edward’s own father, Richard duke of York, and the faithless scheming of Richard earl of Warwick and George duke of Clarence. He did so not merely by winning great victories on the battlefield but thanks to an acute understanding of what lay at the root of good kingship. This was an even more remarkable achievement considering that never in his life did he see another man govern England competently. His instinctive bonhomie had put him at ease in the company of everyone from the lowliest servants to the magnates who made up his natural circle of friends, advisers and counsellors. Although both halves of his reign had experienced turmoil, his second reign had been a marked improvement on the first. Dissenters had either been co-opted or ruthlessly wiped out. A great, if underemployed, army had been mustered for service in France, reminiscent of the hordes raised by his ancestor Edward III in the 1340s and 1350s, and the magnificence of the English court had been raised to a similarly exalted level. ‘After all intestine division appeased, he left a most wealthy realm abounding in all things, which by reason of civil wars he had received almost utterly void as well of able men as money,’ wrote Vergil. And although the coffers were not quite brimming over, on his death he left England a great deal more stable than he had found her.

If England was restored by Edward IV, it was also dealt a massive wrench by his death. For if the travails of the last six decades had taught Englishmen anything, it was that the prosperity of the kingdom was heavily dependent on the good sense of the man who wore the crown. In 1483, however, there was no man waiting, and there were several difficult problems looming. A war had been started with Scotland in 1482, which required careful royal attention and considerable military expenditure, while in the same year relations across the sea had become much more delicate: the treaty of Arras had been signed between Louis XI of France and a new ruler of Burgundy, Archduke Maximilian I of Habsburg – hobbling the traditional English strategy of playing these two great powers off against one another. These were potentially perilous times, yet Edward’s son and heir was twelve and a half years old, and his brother and heir apparent Richard duke of York not quite ten. Once again, agonisingly, England’s fate depended on a child: or more accurately, on the good service and goodwill of the adults who surrounded him.

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When Edward IV died, his eldest son was at Ludlow, the sumptuous castle in Shropshire which served as the seat of the council over which he presided as prince of Wales. The prince’s council was convened under his authority, but in practice all its business was transacted by the young man’s governor, tutor and uncle, Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers. For more than ten years Rivers had served as guide and mentor to the prince of Wales, keeping him busy in a life that his father had long ago abandoned. He spent long hours with ‘horses, dogs and other youthful exercises to invigorate his body’.15 The queen’s forty-three-year-old brother was a paragon of chivalry and an enthusiastic patron and practioner of the learned piety of the Renaissance. Reputed to be the finest knight in England, it was Rivers who had been afforded the honour of jousting with the Bastard of Burgundy in the famous tournament of 1467. Since then he had spent much of his life in the role of a knight errant, riding around Europe making war on the infidel while wearing a hair shirt beneath his heavy armour. Rivers had fought the Saracens in Portugal, he had been on pilgrimages to Rome and Santiago de Compostela, he was on good terms with Pope Sixtus IV and he was an enthusiastic man of letters. He collaborated with the pioneering merchant William Caxton, who in 1475–6 had brought a printing press to England for the first time. Rivers made use of Caxton’s new technology to publish English translations of the Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers and the Proverbs of Christine de Pisan as well as many of his own works of moralising verse. Caxton wrote approvingly of Rivers that he ‘conceiveth well the mutability and the unstableness of this present life, and that he desireth with a great zeal and spiritual love … that we shall abhor and utterly forsake the abominable and damnable sins which commonly be used nowadays; [such] as pride, perjury, terrible swearing, theft, murder and many other’.16 He was, in short, the model tutor for a young king growing up in a time of war and burgeoning knowledge, and his presence at the boy’s elbow had evidently been reassuring to the old king both in life and upon his deathbed. Indeed, Edward had given explicit instructions concerning the education of the prince, demanding that ‘no man sit at his board [i.e. table] but [ … ] by the discretion of [ … ] Earl Rivers’.17

Edward IV’s death, however, made Rivers’s dominant position into a far more complicated matter. The earl’s physical and emotional proximity to the young king now made him, potentially, the most powerful man in the land. For Edward V was at a very sensitive age. Twelve years old was the point at which a king might begin to show a will of his own and to give direction to the government flowing from his crown; yet it was also a childish age at which he remained highly susceptible to direction – or indeed misdirection – by those who were closest to him. Rivers understood this well, for besides being a great knight he was an astute politician. Just six weeks before the king’s death Rivers had requested from his solicitor in London copies of the letters by which he was appointed as the head of the prince’s household, letters which gave him explicit command of the royal person and discretion in moving him from place to place. It would therefore have been fresh and clear in Rivers’s mind just how much political value was attached to his possession of Edward V in April 1483. It was certainly fresh and clear in the minds of those outside the Woodville circle.

Edward IV’s will is now lost, but it seems that on his deathbed he tried to establish a series of compromises by which kingship could have been operated during his son’s early reign. He had made a concerted personal attempt to reconcile those around him who were engaged in longstanding quarrels, bringing Lord Hastings to his bedside and commanding him to make peace with Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset, the queen’s eldest son. Although Dorset was married to Hastings’s stepdaughter, the two ‘maintained a deadly feud’: they were territorial rivals in the midlands and, according to the writer Mancini, rivals for the embraces of ‘mistresses whom they had abducted or attempted to entice from one another’.18 Next, to balance the fact that his son would remain comfortably in the care of Rivers and the Woodvilles, the dying king seems to have nominated his faithful brother Richard duke of Gloucester, next in line to the throne after the young duke of York and therefore naturally the greatest man in the realm, to take command of government, effectively in the position of protector. If this was so, then it was almost exactly the same arrangement that Henry V had attempted to make as he lay dying at Vincennes some sixty years previously, when he had nominated Thomas Beaufort, duke of Exeter to take responsibility for the infant Henry VI’s person, and another duke of Gloucester – Humphrey – to have control of royal government. Splitting command of the new king’s household from command of government was a logical means by which to divide power. Unfortunately, it took absolutely no account of the realities of politics.

As soon as Edward’s death was known, those of his councillors who were in London gathered to debate the best form for the new government to take. Two solutions were suggested. The first was the establishment of a protectorate, which according to Mancini was what the old king had directed in his will. The only plausible candidate for the role of protector was Richard duke of Gloucester, the most senior adult nobleman of the royal blood. Gloucester was away in the north of England, overseeing military efforts against the Scots. As soon as he had heard of Edward’s death he had come to York for a funeral ceremony at which he wept for the loss of his brother. But grief did not distract him from politics: Gloucester found time during his mourning to write to the council, stating his claim to be protector, for which Lord Hastings lobbied hard on his behalf in London. Hastings was motivated by two very obvious factors. He was naturally wary of Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset and the Woodvilles, who bore him ‘extreme ill-will’ and with whom he was so uneasily reconciled.19 Hastings had lost his post as chamberlain of the royal household on Edward’s death; he may well have feared that under a Woodville-led government he would also be deprived of his captaincy of Calais. But more than this, Hastings was motivated by loyalty. No man, save perhaps Gloucester, had been closer or more faithful to Edward IV, and it was therefore a matter of honour that Hastings should defend his late master’s wishes.

Yet the will of a dead king and the protests of his friends counted for nothing. Hastings was voted down by those councillors ‘who favoured the queen’s family’, and it was decided instead that there would be no protectorate: Edward V would begin his reign immediately. He would be crowned on 4 May, and would rule as an adult king, with a council convened to advise and assist him. Gloucester would have a seat on this council, but he would not have pre-eminence. It was a victory for the Woodvilles, and Mancini claims that Dorset gloated that ‘we are so important, that even without the king’s uncle [i.e. Gloucester] we can make and enforce these decisions’.20 On 14 May letters were sent to Ludlow summoning Rivers and Edward V to London, to arrive on 1 May, accompanied by a modest force of no more than two thousand men. In the meantime, the old king was to be buried.

The obsequies for Edward IV were formidable. On the day of his death the king’s broad, bare-chested body had been placed on display for twelve hours to be viewed by all the lords, bishops and aldermen present at Westminster.21 Subsequently Edward lay in state for eight days before being drawn, black-clad, behind horses for burial at St George’s Chapel in Windsor on 20 April. A grand and solemn service was held, and masses were sung for the dead man’s soul. Finally, when the king’s body was placed in the ground, his chief officers of state broke their ceremonial staffs and threw them on top of the coffin, signifying the end of the old reign. Directly they had done this, the royal heralds gave a great cry of ‘Le roy est vive!’ – ‘The king is alive!’ And attention returned to Edward V.

Rivers and the young king set out from Ludlow for London in the last full week of April. Rather than taking the most direct route, they made a detour through the midlands. Gloucester, returning from the north for the coronation, had been in communication with Rivers and had persuaded him to join forces, the better to make a triumphant entry into London. On Tuesday 29 April the two parties neared one another in Northamptonshire. Gloucester had been met by Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, and the two of them lodged that evening in the town of Northampton. Rivers, Edward V and the queen’s son Sir Richard Grey were a couple of miles’ ride away, their men having fanned out to spend the night at the villages and hamlets dotting the countryside – which included the old Woodville seat of Grafton Regis. It had been arranged that Gloucester and Buckingham were to present themselves to their new king on the following day, and in preparation for this important family occasion, Rivers and Richard Grey rode over to Gloucester’s inn on the night of 29 April, to share what turned out to be a convivial meal. They were received with ‘an especially cheerful and joyous countenance, and sitting at supper at the duke’s table, passed the whole time in very pleasant conversation’. Talk may have involved the Scottish campaign, on which Rivers and his brother Sir Edward Woodville had both briefly served under Gloucester’s command, and there may have been some discussion of the property deals that ceaselessly occupied the minds of English magnates: only a month previously Rivers had asked Gloucester to arbitrate a land dispute for him, an act that implied a significant degree of trust and kinship. Whether on these or other matters, the four great men talked late into the night before retiring to bed, agreeing to rise early in the morning.

They rose with the light. The presentation to the new king was to take place in Stony Stratford, eighteen miles south along Watling Street, the old Roman road that cut diagonally across the middle of England. Riding at a gentle pace, it would have taken three hours or so to cover the ground. But the journey was never completed. The magnates were riding together, accompanied by a large body of Gloucester’s soldiers, when the two dukes suddenly drew up, told Rivers and Grey that they were under arrest, ‘and commanded them to be led [as] prisoners to the north of England’.22 Then Gloucester, Buckingham and their armed men kicked their horses and set out at a gallop for the king. They commanded sentries to ride out along the road and prevent the news of their coup from spreading, and the tactic appears to have worked. They reached a startled Edward V in quick time, arrested his chamberlain, Sir Thomas Vaughan, dismissed almost all of the royal attendants with threats to kill anyone who disobeyed, then bent on their knees before their new sovereign, caps in hands, and declared that they had come to safeguard the king’s rule and protect him from the scheming impudence of the Woodvilles.

Edward V was only twelve years old, but he saw quickly through his uncle Gloucester’s fine words. According to Mancini, the youth replied, ‘saying that he merely had those ministers whom his father had given him … he had seen nothing evil in them and wished to keep them unless otherwise proved … As for the government of the kingdom, he had complete confidence in the peers of the realm and the queen.’ At the mention of Elizabeth Woodville’s name, Buckingham snapped back that it was ‘not the business of women but of men to govern kingdoms and so if [the king] cherished any confidence in her he had better relinquish it’. At this point, Edward realised that the dukes were ‘demanding rather than supplicating’. He was as much at their mercy as the men they had arrested: the victim of an unforecast and bewilderingly swift coup. Helpless, Edward went along with them. His last day of real freedom had come abruptly to an end.

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Richard duke of Gloucester trotted Edward V into London on Sunday 4 May, the king dressed in blue velvet and his uncle clad head to toe in black. They were met by the mayor, aldermen and a delegation of five hundred citizens wearing robes of violet. It had escaped none of these well-apparelled gentlemen that 4 May was the date that had been scheduled for the king’s coronation. This, Gloucester announced, would now be postponed for seven weeks, to take place instead on Sunday 22 June, immediately followed by the opening of parliament on Tuesday 24 June. This would allow for ‘the coronation and all that pertained to the solemnity [to] be more splendidly performed’.23 In the meantime, on 8 May Gloucester secured from the council the right to act as protector of the kingdom – an office, it struck contemporaries, that echoed the office wielded by another duke of Gloucester, Henry VI’s uncle Humphrey. But whereas old Humphrey had been frustrated throughout his career by the careful impositions laid upon him by his peers, Richard duke of Gloucester now appeared to have the ‘power to order and forbid in every matter, just like another king’.24

The Woodvilles had been cut out with extraordinary rapidity. Rivers and Sir Richard Grey were locked up in the earl of Warwick’s former castle at Sheriff Hutton in Yorkshire, a huge, square fortress that had been one of Gloucester’s chief residences when he had been sent to keep order in the north during his brother’s reign. The horrified queen, meanwhile, had fled on 1 May for sanctuary to Westminster, ‘in like condition’, noted one chronicler, ‘as she had done before the field of Barnet’.25 She took with her her daughters, her nine-year-old son Prince Richard, duke of York and her eldest son, Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset; they would soon be joined there by Lionel Woodville, another of the queen’s brothers. Sir John Woodville, who was the queen’s youngest brother, was at sea with a fleet detailed to defend the English coasts against French piracy. When he heard about the moves against his family he fled English waters and landed in Brittany. On 9 May, the day after Richard’s appointment as protector, the young king was sent to the Tower of London, supposedly for his own security – although security was scarcely what previous royal inhabitants had found there.

Richard, meanwhile, moved into Crosby Place on Bishopsgate, one of the most stunning and modern mansions in the whole of the city, a luxurious stone-and-timber home that towered above every other residential property in London. From here he ordered a steady anti-Woodville propaganda drive: producing wagons piled high with weapons which he claimed the queen’s family had intended to use against him, and accusing them of having pilfered from the royal treasure. He was ably assisted by Hastings, confirmed in his position as chamberlain of the new king’s household. According to one well-informed writer, Hastings was ‘elated … and was in the habit of saying that nothing whatever had been done except the transferring of the government of the kingdom from two of the queen’s blood to two more powerful persons of the king’s … causing as much blood to be shed as would be produced by a cut finger’.26 But it was not quite as simple as all that.

In acting ruthlessly to overthrow the Woodvilles, Richard had on one level demonstrated much the same instinct for swift, bold leadership that had marked his late brother Edward’s finest hours. His motivation for staging a coup against the family is not hard to deduce. Prestige alone demanded that he should have full control of government during his nephew’s minority, and his whole life’s experience suggested that direct and decisive action against potential rivals was essential in a time of political uncertainty. The house of York was acutely aware of its own tribulations; it would have been a profound betrayal of the family’s own history to have allowed parvenus like Rivers and Dorset to step in and control the kingdom while the only duke of the blood royal stood by and did nothing.

Yet having imprisoned the king and partially scattered his enemies, Richard found himself in a somewhat awkward position. His bullish actions echoed those of his father during Henry VI’s reign rather too closely: seizing control of England by means of a coup was in a sense the easy part; building a long and stable royal government on the back of a factional power-grab was a rather more difficult task. On 22 June the king was due to be crowned, and at that point Richard’s powers as protector would evaporate. There was every chance that the boy Edward V, who had seemed so astonished and aggrieved at being forcibly removed from the family and servants he loved and trusted, would seek to be revenged upon his presumptuous thirty-year-old uncle. At the very least, Richard could expect to be forced to release Rivers and Grey, and to see the rest of the Woodvilles emerge from their various boltholes.

It was a mark of his desperation that during the brief weeks he served as protector, Richard attempted to secure a legal judgement that would allow him to have Rivers, Grey and Vaughan condemned for treason and beheaded. Worryingly for him, the council refused to countenance it, pointing out that since Rivers and the rest had not actually committed any treasonable acts, there was no legal grounds upon which their heads could justifiably be cut off. All that came of Richard’s attempts to neutralise those he saw as his rivals was to increase their alienation. When a council meeting was held in early June at Westminster, and the queen emerged briefly from sanctuary to attend, she sat in silence, spoken to by no one throughout the entire two-hour meeting.27

Late spring ticked by into early summer. Richard’s concerns mounted. It was almost as though he was become his father. Loyalty had been his defining characteristic in his whole career to date. Yet actions taken in defence of what he believed was his brother’s legacy – although begun in the genuine spirit of protecting the realm – were leading him into a corner. The minute he should lose his grip on the power he had taken, he would be potentially as vulnerable as those whom he had displaced. Somehow, loyalty had now to be balanced against the purest form of self-preservation.

Although the daily business of government progressed unremarkably, with the coronation approaching Richard became increasingly paranoid. On 10 and 11 June letters were sent to loyal servants in Yorkshire, requesting urgent military support in the capital, and warning that ‘the Queen, her blood, adherents and affinity … have intended and daily do intend to murder and utterly destroy us and our cousin the duke of Buckingham and the old royal blood of this our realm’. If such a plot existed outside Richard’s mind, it went unnoticed by other writers. However, it would appear that the strategy of summoning what amounted to an army to London was too much for some of those who had hitherto been closest to the protector. If the business of the coup had been in part to protect the legacy of Edward IV, then Gloucester was now running dangerously close to shredding the very thing he claimed to stand for.

Some time around the period when Gloucester was summoning his northern faithful ‘in fearful and unheard of numbers’ to tramp down the ancient straight road from York to London, Lord Hastings appears to have begun losing his confidence in the regime he had done so much to enable. He shared his concerns with two other former loyalists, Thomas Rotherham, archbishop of York, and John Morton, bishop of Ely.28 Whether or not he had fully worked out Gloucester’s ultimate ambition, this is the only really plausible explanation for what occurred on Friday 13 June. Hastings, Rotherham and Morton all assembled for a routine council meeting at the Tower at ten o’clock in the morning, ‘as was their custom’. According to Mancini, they had walked straight into a trap.

When they had been admitted to the innermost quarters, the protector, as prearranged, cried out that an ambush had been prepared for him, and they had come with hidden arms, that they might be the first to open the attack. Thereupon the soldiers, who had been stationed there by their lord, rushed in with the duke of Buckingham, and cut down Hastings on the false pretext of treason; they arrested the others, whose life, it was presumed, was spared out of respect for religion and holy orders.

It was a summary execution of the most breathtaking ruthlessness, and the writers of the time marvelled.29 ‘Whom will insane lust for power spare, if it dares violate the ties of king and friendship?’ wondered one. Cornered and desperate, it was now clear that Gloucester was prepared to countenance any move whatever that would help him cling to power. At any point of wavering he was supported by the duke of Buckingham, who was probably motivated by more obviously selfish desires to see the Woodvilles and Hastings discomfited and himself advanced to the position that he believed his Plantagenet blood merited, and which he had too long been denied.

With Hastings dead and London trembling in confusion and fear, a slide to murderous madness now began. On Monday 16 June the archbishop of Canterbury, Cardinal Bourchier, went to Westminster and cajoled the queen into releasing from her custody her second royal son, Richard duke of York, on the understanding that he was absolutely required to play a prominent role in the forthcoming coronation. He met his elder brother Edward V in the Tower; they were joined there by the late duke of Clarence’s young son Edward, known as earl of Warwick, who was then only eight years old. The following day it was announced that the coronation was cancelled, likewise the parliament that was due to follow.

On Sunday 22 June the theologian Dr Ralph Shaa appeared at St Paul’s Cross to preach the extraordinary – and wholly specious – message that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had been undertaken while Edward was already contracted to marry someone else: Lady Eleanor Butler, the daughter of the great Lancastrian soldier John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury. On these grounds, Shaa argued, Edward V and Richard duke of York were illegitimate and therefore the former could not be allowed to take the throne. Instead, Richard duke of Gloucester, who was said to bear an unmistakeable physical resemblance to his father, the duke of York, should take the throne in the place of his nephews.30 Three days later, the duke of Buckingham appeared at the Guildhall, and subsequently at Baynard’s Castle, to proclaim that since Edward V and Richard duke of York were tainted with bastardy, and since Clarence’s son Edward earl of Warwick was ruined by his father’s attainder, Richard, duke of Gloucester was ‘the only survivor of royal stock … legally entitled to the crown and could bear its responsibilities thanks to his proficiency. His previous career and blameless morals would be a sure guarantee of his good government.’31 As Buckingham spoke, far away in the north at Pontefract Castle Earl Rivers, Sir Richard Grey and Sir Thomas Vaughan were being subjected to a cursory trial for treason in front of the earl of Northumberland. The blood of all three was soon congealing on the ground.

The following day Richard duke of Gloucester formally took the crown as Richard III, elected by a group of hastily assembled noblemen, bishops and Londoners, led by his right-hand man, the duke of Buckingham. They meekly accepted his ridiculous claim that the young princes were bastards, and he accepted their acclamation as king of England before sitting upon the carved marble throne in Westminster Hall in a ceremony that evoked – probably intentionally – that by which his brother had taken power in 1461. ‘Seditious and disgraceful’, was the judgement of the Crowland continuator.32 A sense of helplessness descended on a capital that had witnessed more upheaval, regime change and reversal of fortune in the previous thirty years than in all the three hundred that preceded them. Thousands of northern troops continued to march on London, swords, bows and polished breastplates clattering as they approached. Tongues wagged in the streets of London, and gossips noted that a popular prophecy – to the effect that three kings would hold the crown in three months – had come true.33

The coronation of a new king, which had proven so difficult for Gloucester to organise for his poor, imprisoned nephew, was now arranged with almost indecent haste. On Sunday 6 July 1483 Gloucester and his wife, Anne Neville, celebrated mass at Westminster and were crowned, and a feast was celebrated with ‘all circumstances thereunto belonging’. The new king sat enthroned on a chair with cushions of cloth of gold. When the ritual demanded, he grovelled before the high altar in comfort, his knees protected by crimson damask and velvet and white damask embroidered with little golden flowers. His ears rang with the rich sound of trumpets and the playing of minstrels, some of them brought to England from as far away as Rome. Following the service in the abbey, the new king dined on forty-six different dishes, including beef and mutton, roast crane and peacock, oranges and quinces.34 And when the solemnities and the feasting were finished, Richard held an audience with the nobles whom he had summoned to witness his usurpation, commanding them to go back to their shires and see that order was kept and no extortions committed against his subjects. As a public morality display, he had his brother’s and Lord Hastings’s former mistress Elizabeth Shore clapped in London’s stocks and put to open penance as punishment for the iniquity of her life. ‘And thus’, wrote one chronicler tartly, ‘he taught other[s] to exercise just and good which he would not do himself.’35

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