Post-classical history

18 : Judge Me, O Lord

The last recorded sightings of the Princes in the Tower (as they are now popularly known) were in the late summer and early autumn of 1483, in the month that followed their uncle’s seizure of the crown.1 After Hastings’s murder, all the regular servants who had been on hand for Edward V and his brother Richard were removed from the boys’ presence; they were paid their last wage on 9 July.2 It was reported in London’s Great Chronicle that the boys were spotted ‘playing and shooting in the garden of the Tower’, perhaps as late as 29 September.3 But Dominic Mancini wrote that they ‘were withdrawn into the inner apartments of the Tower proper, and day by day began to be seen more rarely behind the bars and windows, till at length they ceased to appear altogether’.4

Edward V was twelve and he had been well educated. He presumably knew enough either of English history or of human nature – or both – to anticipate his fate. Deposed kings did not live. ‘The physician Argentine, the last of his attendants whose services the king enjoyed, reported that the young king, like a victim prepared for a sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed that death was facing him.’5 Indeed it was. By the time the summer’s blaze had ceased to bake the whitewashed walls of the Tower of London, Edward, who ‘had such dignity in his whole person, and in his face such charm’, had vanished, along with his little brother. ‘I have seen many men burst into tears and lamentations when mention was made of him after his removal from men’s sight,’ wrote Mancini.6 By November 1483 the assumption driving English politics was that the Princes in the Tower would never be seen alive again.7

We still do not know for certain how the boys died. In later years rumours would hold that they had been smothered with a feather-bed, or drowned in a butt of malmsey, or poisoned – but these were no more than rumours. It is possible that bones and teeth discovered roughly buried in a wooden box beneath the chapel stairs in the White Tower are those of the Princes, but these have not been tested adequately enough to say for certain.8 All we can be sure of is that the boys were first disinherited, then deprived of their liberty and servants, and that they then disappeared, presumed dead by contemporaries across Europe. And the person who benefited most from their disappearance was Richard III.

Almost as soon as his reign began, Richard had gone on progress about his new realm, travelling up along the Thames, through Windsor and Reading to Oxford and Woodstock, swinging west to his ducal town of Gloucester and then moving back across to the midlands, York and the north. All of these were areas where his noble power had been strongest, and where he wished – or felt compelled – to demonstrate his fullest gratitude for their support. Richard pointedly avoided going into Wales, the west country or any of the other territories that had been most closely associated with the Woodvilles and the prince’s council through which they had exercised their power. He showered grants and offices in these areas on his hitherto most loyal crony and supporter, Henry duke of Buckingham.9 The south-east and East Anglia were largely entrusted to his loyal ally Lord Howard, newly promoted to the position of duke of Norfolk.

As Richard travelled he attempted to demonstrate that he was a king capable of dispensing good governance and justice, whereas his brother’s reign had descended into lust and neglect. He would later argue that Edward IV’s rule had been ruined because he delighted in ‘adulation and flattery’ and that, ‘led by sensuality and concupiscence’, he had ‘followed the counsel of insolent, vicious people of inordinate avarice, despising the counsel of good, virtuous and prudent people’. Richard’s appeal to the country was much the same as his father’s had been in 1460: he claimed to stand for ‘prudence, justice, princely courage and excellent virtue’.10 Everywhere he went he was greeted with pageants and ceremony, and he responded by holding court with truly royal splendour and munificence.

Richard III was not exactly physically imposing. He had been born with his father’s dark looks but without his brothers’ extraordinary height, and although only thirty years old he had by this stage fully developed the crooked spine that must have caused him extreme physical discomfort and caused him to walk with one shoulder raised higher than the other. He had nervous tics: he ground his teeth, which the historian Polydore Vergil described, noting that ‘while he was thinking of any matter he did continually bite his nether lip’. Vergil, writing later and with some prejudice, also wrote that the king ‘was wont to be ever with his right hand pulling out of the sheath to the midst, and putting in again, the dagger which he did always wear’. Nevertheless, he said, not even Richard’s detractors could deny that he had proven himself over his relatively short life to have ‘a sharp wit, provident and subtle’ and to possess ‘courage … high and fierce’. Most notably of all, he was bright and decisive, ‘a man much to be feared for circumspection and celerity’.11

Thus, despite his diminished bodily appearance, Richard could still project majesty. On his northern progress he travelled with a massive retinue, including numerous bishops, earls and barons, a Spanish diplomatic embassy, his wife, his nine-year-old son Edward of Middleham (who as heir apparent was now styled prince of Wales and earl of Chester) and his captive nephew, Clarence’s son, Edward earl of Warwick. Richard granted charters of privileges to the towns that he visited, allowing some of them the new right to appoint mayors and aldermen. He generously refused to take the customary gifts of money that he was offered by each town: rather, he paid for repairs to castles and settled old debts including a large sum outstanding for Clarence’s tomb at Tewkesbury Abbey. ‘He gave the most gorgeous and sumptuous feasts and banquets, for the purpose of gaining the affections of the people,’ wrote one chronicler.12 At York he feasted in stately splendour, wearing his crown. During his long stay in the city he promised to bestow vast riches and liberties on the citizens, the minster and the people of the local area. Everywhere he went he gave out his personal insignia: little badges in the shape of a boar, thirteen thousand of which were distributed. The boar was a visual pun on Eboracum – the ancient Roman name for York, which was usually shortened to Ebor, and in handing it out Richard was making a very particular statement: he was a king of the north. The people of the north, in their turn, showed their admiration. The Warwick-based historian John Rous, who was at least in his sixties at the time of Richard’s visit, and an expert in the long and varied past of the house of Plantagenet, described the new king as ‘by true matrimony without discontinuance or any defiling of the law by heir male lineally descending from King Henry II’. Given the tumult and confusion of Rous’s own lifetime, this extravagant statement smacked rather more of flattery than accuracy. But it was testament to the open-handed energy with which Richard went about selling his kingship to the realm.

In setting out his stall as a northern king, Richard dangerously underestimated the power of the south. At the end of July, disturbing news reached the travelling court: a plot had been uncovered to remove the Princes from the Tower. Buildings in the city of London were to be set alight, causing enough panic and pandemonium to distract the Tower’s guards, at which point the Princes would be broken out of their jail. Richard responded by sending orders south commanding the plotters, at least one of whom was a former member of Edward IV’s household and another of whom was a senior official in the Tower, to be tried and executed. He ordered soldiers to surround Westminster Abbey, to prevent the escape of the Woodville women who were sheltering in sanctuary there. It is extremely likely that at this point he also gave the instructions that led to the death of the Princes in the Tower. The actual murderer’s name was never discovered (although Richard’s servant Sir James Tyrell gave a dubious confession many years later). Philippe de Commines, writing from the French court, heard that the deed had been orchestrated by the duke of Buckingham, although this too is unlikely.13 If Buckingham were responsible for carrying out Richard’s orders to kill the Princes, then it would have been the last loyal act that he carried out. In October 1483 he turned against the king whom he had helped to create, joined a rebellion of former associates of the old king Edward IV, and switched his allegiance to the only candidate for kingship still alive and even vaguely plausible: Henry Tudor.

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It was a sure sign of the woe that had befallen the English crown that anyone should ever have considered Henry Tudor as a potential king. His father Edmund had been a half-brother of Henry VI, and his mother Margaret Beaufort had a small measure of Plantagenet blood in her veins. In ordinary circumstances these facts would hardly have amounted to a strong dynastic claim to kingship. In 1483 Henry was essentially the heir to a disgraced and minor Welsh Lancastrian family, who had lived the majority of his life in the castles of south Wales and western Brittany and was unknown to most of the people of England, whether great or small. But Richard III’s usurpation of the crown had broken every rule of political propriety, and with it opened up new and previously unthinkable possibilities. Whereas in the long distant past adult kings such as Edward II and Richard II had been forced from the throne as punishment for long and tyrannous misrule, and while Henry VI’s inanity had eventually led the English polity into a civil war which cost him his crown, Edward V had done nothing whatever to deserve his fate. He was a blameless king whose only fault was to accede at the age of twelve. It was inevitable that many members of the Woodville family and the old king’s affinity would never accept Richard III as their king, and would strive immediately for his replacement. More generally, Richard’s violent and unprincipled coup, snatching office on entirely specious grounds and by murderous means, dealt a severe blow to the fragile dignity of a crown that had been fought over and grabbed back and forth for nearly thirty years. Not since the dark days of the 1140s, when King Stephen and Empress Matilda had carved up the realm in a civil war that contemporaries had called the Shipwreck, had kings of England been so vulnerable to assaults. If Richard could seize the crown, why should it not in turn be seized from him?

The rebels who plotted to burn London over the summer and turn the Princes loose from the Tower had attempted to make contact with Henry Tudor before they were discovered. Since they believed that Edward V was alive, they did not contact Henry with a view to making him king, but he was now ‘at his own liberty’ in Brittany and was therefore looked upon by dissidents as a possible ally in the struggle against the usurper Richard III.14 Ferment was bubbling among Edwardian loyalists, and by early August a series of conspiracies and rebellions had begun, which drew Henry Tudor ever closer to their heart. All across the southern counties of England, men were preparing to rise up against the new regime. At the end of August Richard III was concerned enough to command the duke of Buckingham to lead treason commissions into counties across the south-east, from Kent, Sussex, Surrey and London to the Home Counties. A month or so later, on 22 September, the king sacked his master of the rolls, Robert Morton, evidently fearing that treason was spreading to the ranks of the royal administration. In fact, it had already penetrated far deeper into the royal circle. By the end of September, it was spoken of openly that the Princes were dead.

On 24 September Buckingham, Richard’s most exalted and lavishly rewarded noble ally, defected. He wrote from his Welsh castle of Brecon to Henry Tudor in Brittany, asking him, according to one account, ‘to assemble a great fleet and bring an army and a great number of foreigners from Brittany with them over the sea, and to land in this realm to destroy [ Richard’s] most royal person’.15 Although Buckingham had been the most ardent follower and facilitator of Richard’s usurpation, and the man who had profited most handsomely from the ousting of the Woodvilles, he was now persuaded that his fortunes would be increased even further by turning coat once again. In the years that followed it was suggested that he did so because Richard had been slow to grant him a portion of the earldom of Hereford, which he felt he was owed as the result of a marriage made by one of his ancestors in the fourteenth century.16 More likely it was simply because he was a feckless character who was drawn to intrigue. Buckingham appears to have calculated in September 1483 that the rebellious spirit swelling across the south would be sufficient to push Richard off the throne, and that his own political survival and advancement therefore depended on backing the rebels. He was sorely mistaken.

It is telling that Edward IV never considered Buckingham a suitable figure either for a substantial landed endowment or for significant involvement in government. Like the duke of Clarence, Buckingham appears to have been essentially vain and short-sighted.17All the same, his defection was a serious problem for Richard III. There had already been covert communication between the circles of Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and Edward’s widow, Elizabeth Woodville, hidden away in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey: the women were determined to proceed with marrying Henry to Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York. This alliance would formally unite the rump of Lancastrian support in England with what remained of the Woodville faction.18 In the autumn of 1483 their plans became entwined with both the general rebelliousness of the south and the self-serving machinations of Buckingham. Despite Richard III’s attempts to earn his realm’s loyalty and trust, he was now faced with the first serious challenge to his rule, less than four months after he had seized the crown.

In the three and a half weeks that followed his letter to Henry Tudor, Buckingham did his best to raise an army from his lands in south Wales, assembling men and munitions at Brecon Castle. He was hampered by abysmal weather: autumn skies lashed rain on the land and made troop movements difficult and unpleasant. Buckingham was also hamstrung by his own reputation as a ‘sore and hard-dealing man’ who was despised by the tenants he was attempting to stir into action. Nevertheless, in the end he managed to assemble a ‘great force of Welsh soldiers’, while also contacting the perpetually fractious men of Kent, who never needed much encouragement to rise up against the established order. He ignored letters of increasing belligerence sent to him by Richard, demanding that he give up his plotting immediately and come to the royal presence.19

Unfortunately for Buckingham, the men of Kent began their rebellion too early. They attempted to rise on Friday 10 October but very swiftly fell away again when the duke of Norfolk, Thomas Howard, led a resistance force out of London. Further unrest fanned out across the south of England, with local risings in Sussex, Essex, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Hampshire, Wiltshire and into the south-west in Somerset, Devon and Cornwall. But these do not seem to have been especially well co-ordinated. Neither did the threat of yet another outbreak of civil war command any serious noble support. Margaret Beaufort’s husband, Lord Stanley, declined to raise his men in the north-west, and most of the rest of the regional magnates also sat on their hands. Buckingham hesitated and did not begin his western campaign until Saturday 18 October, by which time it was too late. When the duke prepared to march east into England he found that ceaseless rain had caused the banks of the Severn to burst, flooding the surrounding lands and making the river quite impassable. The Welshmen in the duke’s army were ‘brought to the field against their wills and without any lust to fight for him’. They had been browbeaten in the early part of October and by the end of the month were inclined to go home, dry their feet and avoid any more contact with the man who commanded them.20

Buckingham headed north-east, into the marches, and did his best to raise the people of Herefordshire. Unfortunately, news had already reached them that Richard III was moving with an army from the north towards the rebellious duke, upon whose head there was now a £1,000 bounty for having ‘traitorously turned upon us contrary to the duty of his liegance’.21 Faced with failure, Buckingham abandoned what remained of his army and went into hiding in Shropshire, in the house of his servant Ralph Bannister, whom he had known and trusted since his childhood. But trust had its limits. On 1 November Bannister sold Buckingham out. He was captured and taken to Salisbury in Wiltshire by Sir James Tyrell, where Richard, having ridden imperiously through his realm in search of the rebels, now held court. Richard’s men interrogated Buckingham, who confessed ‘without torture’ and asked to ‘have liberty to speak with king Richard’. His request was flatly refused and on Sunday 2 November the duke was hauled into the marketplace in Salisbury and beheaded.

Many centuries later a decapitated skeleton, with its right arm also hacked off, was found beneath the kitchen of a pub called the Saracen’s Head, on the spot where Buckingham was supposed to have been executed. As soon as the bones were touched they disintegrated, leaving only dust behind them.22

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As Buckingham’s head rolled in the dirt of Salisbury’s market square, Henry Tudor was being tossed by the waves in the sea. His mother had kept him informed of events in England, and Henry had spent September and October in Brittany fitting out a fleet of fifteen ships, sufficient to carry a force of five thousand soldiers across to England for an invasion. His sponsor in this great adventure was his long-time jailer Duke Francis II, who gave the twenty-six-year-old exile ships, sailors and a considerable amount of money in loans to help them on their way. They pushed off with a good wind from Paimpol, a pleasant fishing village on the northern tip of the Breton coast, probably on the night of 1 November. But as anyone who had braved the Channel during the stormy months of darkness knew, the weather could quickly turn foul. Henry and his uncle Jasper were blown by ‘a cruel gale of wind’, which drove some of their ships north to Normandy, while others were sent back to Brittany. Eventually, Henry’s ship limped in sight of the English coast at Poole, where it anchored alongside the one other vessel that had passed safely through the tempest. On land they spied a number of lookouts, clearly waiting for their arrival. But something in the scene struck Henry as ominous. He sent a small craft to investigate the situation on shore: when it made contact with the men on land, they all cried that they were sent from Buckingham to greet Henry and bring him to the successful rebel headquarters, ‘which the duke himself had at hand with a notable excellent army’.23 It was a trap, and Henry could smell it. The wind was still blowing in the direction of Normandy. He weighed anchor and followed it, leaving England to a triumphant Richard III and abandoning the fight for another day. It was a very wise move.

Henry had been proclaimed king in his absence at Bodmin on 3 November by a small group of English rebels, but as he returned to Brittany he found that his position was as weak as it had ever been. His actions during Buckingham’s rebellion had confirmed him as an unrepentant enemy of the English crown. The possibility of rehabilitation into the English nobility – so close in 1482 – was now dead. The only option left to Henry was to claim the crown outright. In a ceremony held at Vannes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483, at which his supporters swore homage to him as if he were an anointed ruler, he in return swore an oath to marry Elizabeth of York as soon as his claim to the crown was realised. How exactly it was to be realised was not very clear. International relations stood in a muddle, for on 30 August 1483 Louis XI of France had died, leaving a thirteen-year-old successor, Charles VIII, whose regent was his elder sister Anne. Henry’s value as a pawn in relations between England, France and Brittany was now diminished, as was the likelihood that Francis II – whose health was beginning to fail – would wish to finance a second invasion of England.

Henry’s main source of hope lay with the small but swelling community of exiles who fled England following the failure of Buckingham’s rebellion with their lives in danger and their property at default. There was no shortage of outcasts. In January 1484 Richard III called his first parliament and used it to deliver a full-scale attack on his enemies, to defile the memory of his brother’s reign and to secure the allegiance of all the lords of England to his own rule and the future rule of his heir, Edward of Middleham, prince of Wales. The act Titulus Regius praised Richard as the only legitimate heir to his father Richard duke of York and condemned the ‘ungracious feigned marriage’ between Edward IV and ‘Elizabeth Grey’ – as Elizabeth Woodville was now to be known – which, the act stated, ‘was presumptuously made without the knowledge and assent of the lords of this land, and also by sorcery and witchcraft committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother Jacquetta, duchess of Bedford’.24 At a specially convened meeting in a committee room in Westminster, ‘nearly all the lords of the realm’ swore an oath of adherence to Prince Edward ‘as their supreme lord, in case anything should happen to his father’.25 Then the parliament set about systematically destroying those whom Richard perceived to have crossed him the previous autumn.

The January parliament passed attainders against a large number of Richard’s enemies, most prominently Thomas Grey, marquess of Dorset, John Morton, bishop of Ely, Lionel Woodville, bishop of Salisbury, and Peter Courtenay, bishop of Exeter, as well as Margaret Beaufort – who retained her life and liberty but had her lands transferred to her husband. Dorset and the bishops were therefore among those who took up residence in Brittany, where they found themselves in the company of Sir Edward Woodville, Richard Woodville and numerous loyal old servants of Edward IV, including Sir Giles Daubeney and John Cheyne, who had been personal attendants to the old king, John Harcourt, once a faithful follower of Lord Hastings, and Reginald Bray, who was connected to Margaret Beaufort and the Stanleys. All were wanted men and many had lost virtually everything. All now clung to the desperate notion that Henry Tudor might one day invade England again, to cast aside yet another anointed king.

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Richard III may have been a usurper, but when he turned his attention to issues of more general government he was capable of being generous and sympathetic. Over Christmas 1483 his mind had been on the plight of England’s poor, who found themselves unable to get justice due to the high costs of the legal system. A grant dated 27 December shows him granting a yearly payment for life of £20 to his clerk John Harington, who served the court of requests. This court was designed to hear the ‘bills, requests and supplications of poor persons’, offering a route to legal redress that would not ruin them financially.26 After the New Year celebrations he travelled around Kent, and just as he had done on his northern progress, he refused to accept expensive gifts from the towns through which he passed – a richly decorated purse stuffed with more than £30 of gold was graciously declined at Canterbury, with the king ordering its contents ‘to be redelivered to the said persons from whom the said sum had been collected’.27

The parliament of January 1484, when it was not concerned with the business of legitimising Richard’s claim to the crown, also suggested that his inclinations as king were towards the principles of justice and fairness. One law granted that ‘every justice of the peace in every county, city or town shall have authority and power to grant bail … at his or their discretion’ – meaning that all people convicted of felonies could in theory be freed until they faced trial, and not suffer confiscation of their goods before they had had a chance to defend themselves in court.28 Forced loans known as benevolences, which had been used by Edward IV, were declared illegal. Where taxes were levied, they were imposed most heavily on foreign merchants, yet even here Richard showed himself to be relatively enlightened, ensuring that the flourishing new book trade was exempted from import duties, and that every writer, printer and bookbinder could do business freely, ‘of whatever nation or country he may or shall be’.29

All the same, the extreme circumstances surrounding Richard’s ascent to the throne meant that all the progressive policies in the world would not bring unity to his realm overnight. One of his most serious problems was the fact that he remained forced to rely heavily on the men who had brought him to power, rather than constructing a broad and inclusive government that represented the interests of the whole realm. His chief servants, who included William Catesby, Richard Ratcliffe, Francis, Lord Lovell, Sir James Tyrell and Robert Brackenbury, were all unconnected to Edward IV, and mostly men who had served Richard as duke.30 His household was packed with northerners whom he could trust, a fact which worsened the sense of a north–south divide to his kingship.

Worst of all, Richard was simply unlucky. The king suffered the first personal tragedy of his reign on 9 April 1484 when his beloved little son, Prince Edward, died. He was about ten years old. The child had grown up in the castles of the north, including his birthplace of Middleham, where he enjoyed the life of learning and entertainment common to all boys of his class, with trips in a chariot about the countryside, the japery of fools in his household and the occasional involvement in ostentatious ceremonies at which his father had his status as heir to the crown publicly proclaimed.31 But childhood was a perilous time of life, and Prince Edward’s death, following a short illness, came as a crushing blow to Richard and Queen Anne. The news reached them at Nottingham and it threw the bereaved royal couple into ‘a state almost bordering on madness, by reason of their sudden grief’.32 The long-term hopes of any usurper’s regime depended on the security of succession. While Richard had fathered several bastard children, including one John of Pontefract, whom he knighted at York in 1483 and acknowledged as ‘our dear bastard son’ when he appointed him captain of Calais in 1485, Edward of Middleham was the only child who could have been an acceptable heir to the crown. His death was therefore a catastrophe, even to a ruler as tenacious as Richard III.33

Prince Edward’s death made it essential that Richard should step up his attempts to capture Henry Tudor. With Francis of Brittany ailing, the king of England made his move through Pierre Landais, the Breton treasurer. By September 1484, he was close to an agreement that would exchange Henry’s person for the title of the earldom of Richmond, which in ancient times had been given by English kings to dukes of Brittany. By chance, Henry was warned of these negotiations just as they neared their conclusion. The Tudors, with their court of exiles, had established themselves in Vannes – but it was clear that the duchy, for so long a haven, had now become a dangerous place. Early in September Jasper Tudor led a small advance escape party over the Breton border near the town of Rennes. Two days later Henry followed him, galloping over the frontier disguised as a groom. By the end of September, most of his adherents had joined them. It was a highly dangerous dash for freedom, since outside Breton territory the Tudors enjoyed no safe-conduct and none of the guaranteed diplomatic protection that for many years had kept them safe. But in 1484, with an heirless Richard determined to hunt and exterminate his chief remaining foe, it was a gamble worth taking.

Fortunately for Henry, it paid off. Charles VIII’s government received the Tudors neither with trepidation nor hostility, but rather with delight. There was no excitement in the French court at the prospect of a renewed Anglo-Breton alliance, and the voluntary flight of the Tudors greatly reduced the prospect of this happening. So the renegade Englishmen were greeted with honour by the French king’s envoys, presented with money, clothes and lodgings, and encouraged to continue their plans to invade Richard’s realm. As they wintered in France they were reinforced by a steady trickle of defectors and sympathisers: John de Vere, earl of Oxford escaped from Hammes Castle in the Pale of Calais and joined the Tudors in November; the academic and rising cleric Richard Fox offered his support from his position at the university of Paris, and former members of Edward IV’s household continued to smuggle supplies and messages out of England to the Tudor court in exile.

This was all extremely irksome to Richard, whose attempts to establish secure and broad-based kingship were undermined by the existence of a possible rival authority, no matter how small and far away. On 7 December 1484, from the palace of Westminster, the king issued a proclamation against the Tudors and their allies. He described them as rebels, traitors, murderers and extortioners ‘contrary to truth, honour and nature’. The proclamation damned Henry’s ‘ambitious and insatiable covetice’ which led him to ‘encroach upon … the name and title of Royal estate of this Realm of England, whereunto he hath no manner, interest, right or colour as every man well knoweth’. If the rebels were to be successful in their plans to invade, Richard warned, they would ‘do the most cruel murders, slaughters, robberies and disinheritances that were ever seen in any Christian realm’. All natural subjects were called upon ‘like good and true English men to endeavour themselves at all their powers for the defense of themselves, their wives, children, goods and inheritances’. They would be in good company, for Richard, ‘a well-willed, diligent and courageous prince will put his most royal person to all labour and pain necessary in this behalf for the resistance and subduing of his said enemies …’34

And indeed, Henry Tudor had begun to style himself as king of England. Around the time of his flight from Brittany to France he began to sign documents with the initial H, a considerable presumption which had not been adopted by any unanointed English king-in-waiting before him. His intention to marry Edward IV’s eldest daughter, Elizabeth of York, remained undimmed, although it was an intention that Richard was determined to subvert. On 1 March 1484 Richard had reached a settlement with Elizabeth Woodville by which she and her girls could leave the sanctuary at Westminster, where they had been for the best part of a year. The king had sworn publicly to ensure that if the Woodvilles would emerge ‘and be guided, ruled and demeaned after me, then I shall see that they shall be in surety of their lives … [and] I shall put them in honest places of good name and fame …’35 Richard promised to marry the girls respectably and provide modest lands for their upkeep. Rumours began to circulate at Christmas 1484 that he intended to discard Queen Anne and marry his niece Elizabeth himself, despite a closeness in relationship that bordered on the grotesque, even by fifteenth-century aristocratic standards. The prospect was unpalatable – ‘incestuous’ and guaranteed to incur the ‘abhorrence of the Almighty’, was one verdict – but this was Richard, after all, whose attitude towards members of his family had proven to be anything but sentimental. Could he marry Elizabeth? ‘It appeared that in no other way could his kingly power be established, or the hopes of his rival be put an end to,’ wrote one chronicler.36

Queen Anne died on 16 March 1485. She was only twenty-eight and mutterings of poisoning accompanied her demise. These, combined with the lurid speculation about Richard’s intentions, were enough to prompt the king to make a public statement in the presence of London’s mayor and citizens shortly after Easter. He had been advised by his disgusted councillors that to press ahead with plans to marry Elizabeth would incur not ‘merely the warnings of the voice; for all the people of the north, in whom he placed the greatest reliance, would rise in rebellions against him’. For this reason, Richard stood in the great hall of the Hospital of St John and made a denial ‘in a loud and distinct voice’, assuring his people that he did not intend to wed his brother’s daughter. The limits of good taste had been reached.

On 23 June 1485 Richard issued another proclamation against the Tudor rebels in France, damning Henry’s ‘bastard blood both of father side and of mother side’ and warning of ‘the disinheriting and destruction of all the noble and worshipful blood of this Realm forever’ should a Tudor invasion succeed.37 Evidently, Richard was acutely concerned for his crown. According to Vergil, the king remained ‘vexed, wrested and tormented in mind with fear almost perpetually of the earl Henry and his confederates’ return; wherefore he had a miserable life.’38

Yet he was no more nervous than Henry Tudor, who was, Vergil continued, ‘pinched by the very stomach’ at the rumour concerning Richard’s intentions towards Elizabeth of York, and had also to deal with the wavering of Elizabeth’s half-brother the marquess of Dorset, who flirted with returning to England as a loyal subject of the king. By the height of summer it was clear that both sides needed a resolution. Henry in particular sensed that his chance to strike at Richard was both fleeting and immediate. He borrowed a modest forty thousand livres tournois from Charles VIII, took counsel with his uncle Jasper and the other leading exiles, fitted out a small fleet with four thousand men – some of them dredged up hurriedly from the jails of Normandy – and set sail from Honfleur at the mouth of the river Seine. They were headed for the western tip of Wales, the land from which Henry’s grandfather, Owen Tudor, had first emerged, where Edmund and Jasper Tudor had held sway during Henry VI’s reign, and from where the Tudors had fled when Edward IV had retaken his realm in 1471. Their journey, propelled by a helpful southerly breeze, took seven days: plenty of time for those aboard the invasion fleet to consider the enormity of what they were about to attempt.

Henry Tudor was described succinctly by Philippe de Commines as being ‘without power, without money, without right to the Crown of England’.39 Nevertheless, on Sunday 7 August 1485, this unlikely claimant to England’s crown landed at Mill Bay near Milford Haven, waded through the salt water onto wet Welsh sand, knelt and kissed the ground, and uttered the words of Psalm 43: ‘Judge me, O Lord, and plead my cause.’40 His time had finally come.

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