Post-classical history


Easter 1486: Lord Lovell and the Stafford Brothers

‘[T]he old humour of those countries, where the memory of King Richard was so strong, that it lay like lees at the bottom of men’s hearts; and if the vessel was but stirred, it would come up.’

Sir Francis Bacon, The History of the Reign of King Henry VII1

Living, walking monuments to Henry VII’s sense of insecurity still exist, the Yeomen of the Guard. First raised in October 1485 as fifty archers to protect him at his coronation, these were soon transformed into men-at-arms and their strength increased to two hundred. Crack troops recruited from veterans who had been with the King in France and fought for him at Bosworth, their principal job was to mount guard every day and deter assassins – the traditional Knights and Squires of the Body being thought insufficient for the task – although in the absence of a standing army the Yeomen also fought as an elite unit. It quickly became apparent that Henry needed them.

In a letter dated 18 December, just after Parliament had risen, Thomas Betanson informed Sir Robert Plumpton that there was an uneasy mood in London. A number of Yorkist lords and gentlemen, Richard’s committed followers, had just been attainted by an Act that outlawed them, together with their families, confiscating their estates – men such as the Earl of Surrey, Lord Lovell and Lord Zouche. Although several MPs opposed the Act, the king insisted on it. There was talk in the city of war breaking out again: no one could say who was going to start it, but on the whole people thought it would be either the Northerners or the Welsh. Betanson adds, ‘There is much running among the lords, but no man wot [knows] what it is: it is said it is not well among them.’2

Henry’s most dangerous opponent was Francis, Viscount Lovell, who had been among his predecessor’s staunchest supporters. At first believed to have fallen at Bosworth, according to a letter written by Henry soon after the battle, he had managed to escape and find sanctuary. A boyhood companion of the young Duke of Gloucester, during Richard’s reign he had been chamberlain of the royal household and virtually the second most important man in the kingdom. Until now he had been a magnate not just of high standing and ancient blood – he was the seventh Lord Lovell as well as the second viscount – but one of enormous wealth, even before receiving lavish rewards from Richard. Some idea of how rich he was can be gained by walking around the ruins of his beautiful house at Minster Lovell in Oxfordshire, in woodland on the banks of the River Windrush, where he had been visited by his late master on at least one occasion.

After Bosworth, Lovell had made for East Anglia, hoping to go abroad. Failing to find a boat, he took sanctuary in the Benedictine abbey at Colchester. ‘Sanctuary rights’ gave a fugitive immunity from arrest for forty days, after which he must leave the kingdom. During the recent wars many had saved their lives in this way, although sometimes they were dragged out and executed, as happened to the Lancastrian leaders after their defeat at Tewkesbury in 1471. Remembering the widespread disgust caused by this vicious breach of legality, in which several of his cousins lost their lives, even when the forty days had elapsed King Henry made no attempt to remove Lovell from the abbey.

Also in sanctuary at the abbey were two more of the late king’s supporters who had fought at Bosworth, Sir Humphrey Stafford and his younger brother Thomas. Well known in his county, Humphrey, who was to be attainted with Lord Lovell in December 14853, owned the valuable manor of Grafton in Worcestershire (near Tewkesbury and the River Severn), besides other big estates, including Blatherwycke in Northamptonshire. Fifty-nine but still hale and hearty, he had been MP for Worcestershire and high sheriff, as well as MP for Warwickshire. For most of his life he had shown himself not so much a Yorkist as an enemy of the Harcourts, a powerful Lancastrian family who were his neighbours in Northamptonshire. Sir Richard Harcourt had murdered Humphrey’s father in 1448, to be murdered in turn, during an affray, by Humphrey’s half-brother, the Bastard of Grafton. But in 1483, during the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion, Sir Humphrey had held the fords of the rain-swollen Severn against Buckingham’s followers, earning King Richard’s gratitude.

Locally, Humphrey had a name as a ruthless thug who was always ready to break the law. In a petition presented during the Parliament of November 1485 some Stafford cousins complained how, with ‘great might and strength’ (meaning a large body of armed men), he had seized their estates and kept possession of them because he was ‘in such favour and conceit with Richard, late in deed and not of right, king of England’. Henry granted their petition, that the manors should not be included among those forfeited in Sir Humphrey’s attainder.4

The three fugitives knew their one chance of rebuilding their fortunes was to replace Henry with the Earl of Warwick. They decided that in the spring of 1486, shortly before the king visited York, Lovell should break out of sanctuary, assemble a small force and kill Henry – helpers would be easy enough to find in a city where Richard had been so popular. Lovell would then proclaim Warwick king, and raise all Yorkshire in support. Meanwhile, the Stafford brothers were to rally the Yorkists of the West Midlands, where Warwick owned large estates, and then bring troops north to reinforce Lovell. While everything depended on liquidating Henry, the plan did at least have the advantage of surprise – no one expected a coup d’état from three men who were cooped up in sanctuary.5

Towards the middle of March Henry VII left London, riding north by way of Waltham, Cambridge, Huntingdon and Lincoln. He kept Holy Week at Lincoln – washing the feet of twenty-nine poor men in the cathedral, as he was twenty-nine years of age – where Sir Reginald Bray warned him that Lovell was going to leave sanctuary and was planning serious mischief. Henry immediately summoned Bray’s informant, a Hugh Conway who had fought for him at Bosworth, but did not believe the story. ‘I affirmed all to be true, as my said friend had showed, and the king said that it could not be so,’ recalled Conway.6 He grew angry when Conway refused to reveal the name of his friend, were he ‘to be drawn with wild horses’. While they were still at Lincoln, news came that Lovell and the Staffords had escaped from Colchester and no one knew where they had gone. However, for the moment Henry remained unconcerned, riding on to Nottingham.

But when the king reached York he heard rumours of a revolt in the North Riding. Under the name of ‘Robin of Redesdale’, an unidentified Yorkist was raising support in an area around Ripon and Middleham that had been closely associated with Richard III. The rumours were confirmed, followed by a report that Lord Lovell was marching on York. Vergil says Henry was horrified – ‘struck with great fear’ – as he had neither an army nor weapons for his retinue, while it seemed unlikely he would be able to raise an adequate force in a city so well known for its devotion to King Richard.

Aware that he must act quickly, before Lovell’s army grew any larger, Henry sent his ill-equipped retinue against the enemy, including the Knights of the Body and the Yeomen of the Guard, under his uncle Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford. According to Vergil, most of them ‘armoured themselves in leather’, meaning they bought padded deerskin jerkins (the poor man’s armour) from the locals. He also sent heralds, promsing a pardon to any rebel, except for the leaders, who laid down his arms. The heralds won over so many men that Lovell lost his nerve and fled during the night.7 However, still hoping for a chance to ambush the king, he took a band of reliable followers with him.

Meanwhile, reports that King Henry was in danger spread all over Yorkshire, with the result that local landowners came to York to offer their services. Somewhat improbably, in view of its former fervent loyalty to Richard, he is said to have been received in the northern capital with great enthusiasm and elaborate pageants, the crowds shouting, ‘King Henry! King Henry! God preserve that sweet and well-savoured face’.

Even so, Lord Lovell regained his nerve. On 23 April, St George’s Day, he very nearly succeeded in killing the king at York when he was celebrating the feast of St George. Although no proper account survives, the attack was made either at High Mass in the Minster, or afterwards when Henry was dining in state in the Archbishop’s Great Hall with his court, including the earls of Lincoln, Rivers and Wiltshire. It looks as if he had a narrow escape. According to one source, the Earl of Northumberland personally saved Henry’s life, which means that someone tried to assassinate him.8 More than one man was involved, since the earl caught several people whom he hanged on the spot.9 This had been the first attempt on Henry’s life since Bosworth.

Yet the king was not too alarmed. In the words of Francis Bacon (echoing Vergil), Henry thought the rising was ‘but a rag or remnant of Bosworth Field, and had nothing in it of the main party of the House of York’. Vergil and Bacon stress that Henry was not so much nervous about these particular rebels as worried he might not be able to raise a dependable force in northern England if a really serious rising broke out in the region, ‘for that he was in a core of people, whose affections he suspected’.10 It was impossible to estimate how much pro-Yorkist feeling had been stirred up.

Shrewdly judged promises of pardon caused the rebellion to disintegrate everywhere else in Yorkshire. Giving up hope, Lord Lovell fled across the Pennines by night, taking refuge on the coast of what was then northern Lancashire but is now Cumbria. There he found temporary shelter at the house of Sir Thomas Broughton of Broughton Tower – a peel tower built as a defence against Scottish raids – on Furness Fells in Broughton-Furness. Sir Thomas had been given confiscated estates in Devon and Cornwall by King Richard in 1484, but was forced by the new king to return them to their owners. He was another Yorkist diehard who remained loyal to Richard’s memory, had been involved in the recent revolt and, with his Cumberland neighbour Sir John Huddleston, had held out for some time.

In the meantime, Sir Humphrey had set to work in Worcestershire. He overcame the problem of having been outlawed in the recent Parliament by claiming King Henry had pardoned him, producing forged ‘letters patent’ that rescinded his attainder. Clearly, he had plenty of friends in Worcestershire, such as Richard Oseney, to whom he sent a message, asking to meet him – presumably well armed – at Kidderminster in the north-west of the county. Another friend was Ralph Botery, who in his indictment was later to be accused, among other charges, of giving Stafford a brace of pheasants ‘on account of the love that he then bore towards him’. Humphrey’s bastard son, John Stafford, joined in the rising with enthusiasm, stealing horses from the king’s close at Upton-on-Severn.

Humphrey assembled several hundred men, with whom he stormed into Worcester, raising the cry ‘A Warwick! A Warwick!’, and briefly took over the city. Later, the municipal authorities were charged with failing to post a proper guard at the gates, the implication being that they had been deliberately negligent. Stafford quickly put about inflammatory rumours – Henry Tudor had been captured by Lord Lovell in Yorkshire, while the Earl of Warwick had been freed from captivity on the isle of Guernsey and, having crossed to England, was riding north to join Lovell. The rising spread into neighbouring Warwickshire and Herefordshire – at the small towns of Warwick and Birmingham Stafford’s supporters ran through the streets shouting ‘A Warwick!’ Obviously, there was plenty of grass-roots support for the Earl in the West Midlands.

Meanwhile, riots broke out in London, culminating with a rally at Westminster on 5 May. Most of the emblems on the mob’s banners were ploughs, rooks, shoes and woolsacks, but one bore the Bear and Ragged Staff – Warwick’s badge. Carrying weapons, they marched to Highbury in Islington where they clashed with the ‘king’s lieges’ sent to disperse them.11 Although they were demonstrating in support of the Plantagenet in the Tower, prompted by reports of the risings by Lord Lovell and the Staffords, no one was tried for treason because nobody of importance was involved and Henry’s policy was one of leniency for the masses – his regime was too fragile for him to risk butchering ordinary folk.

News came of Lovell’s failure, however, and the Worcestershire rising collapsed, forcing the Staffords to flee for their lives. Their first hiding place, an area of deep woodland near Bewdley, was soon surrounded by 400 men led by Thomas Cokesey, who had a commission from the king to arrest them. However, although he searched the woods thoroughly, he had to report that ‘as yet we cannot get him nor hear where he is’. In fact, the brothers had been warned of Cokesey’s approach by a neighbour, Sir Richard Burdett, who was afterwards charged with aiding and abetting their escape.

Despite Henry’s pretence of being unconcerned, the best informed chronicler of the period, Polydore Vergil, heard that he had been badly scared. He used carefully calculated leniency in dealing with the Midlands rebels, after twenty were tried and found guilty at Warwick and Birmingham, to the extent of intervening in the process of the law.

John Colard of Feckenham in Worcestershire had been indicted for treason, his lands, goods and chattels being granted to his accuser, Thomas Tolhoth. Petitioning the king for a pardon on 14 May, Colard said that while visiting Bromsgrove on market day, he had happened to meet ‘Humphrey Stafford, now your rebel, which long before that time was no good master nor well-willer unto him’, and because of rumours that Stafford had obtained a royal pardon, and because everybody else was doing so, ‘more for dread than love’ he had welcomed him, before going home. Although blameless, he had then been accused of treason ‘by certain persons of malice and evil will’. Henry granted the petition, despite a protest by Tolhoth that ‘sinister labour’ had been used to persuade the authorities of Colard’s innocence.12

After ‘lurking for a time with Sir Thomas Broughton’, as Bacon puts it, in May Lord Lovell made his way south. A hunted man, to avoid attention he must have ridden along lonely paths, often by night, avoiding towns. Once again, the former Lord Chamberlain hoped to find a boat across the sea. On 19 May 1486 the Countess of Oxford, the wife of one of Henry’s right-hand men, wrote to John Paston, warning him that ‘I am credibly informed that Francis, late Lord Lovell, is now of late resorted into the Isle of Ely, to the intent by all likelihood, to find the ways and means to get him shipping and passages in your coasts, or else to resort again to sanctuary.’13

Big rewards must have been offered for his capture and rigorous searches made, but the authorities were unable to lay hands on Lovell. They did not realize he had moved from Cambridgeshire into Suffolk, almost certainly given shelter by the de la Poles. The head of the family, the Duke of Suffolk, was married to Richard III’s sister Elizabeth Plantagenet, whose sympathies lay with the fugitive.

The Staffords were not so lucky. Avoiding capture, they had fled from Worcestershire to Culham in Berkshire, ‘a certain obscure sanctuary betwixt Oxford and Abingdon’.14 Here, the abbey of Abingdon, two miles to the north, possessed a church with long established sanctuary rights. Why the Staffords chose this particular place for a refuge only became apparent much later on, but they arrived there on 11 May. The king was taking no chances, however, and two days later they were forcibly removed at night by sixty armed men under Sir John Savage. No doubt there were protests from the monk in charge, and as soon as the abbot heard of it he sent a written complaint to the authorities about this outrageous infringement of his abbey’s ancient privilege.

On 20 June Sir Humphrey appeared before the court of King’s Bench, pleading that he had every right to be returned to sanctuary. Accordingly, he was assigned counsel and much to the king’s displeasure the case was adjourned for eight days, so that the Abbot of Abingdon, Dan (as monks were styled then) John Sant, could be summoned to give evidence. Before the trial could resume, Henry tried to make the judges give him their opinion on whether or not Stafford had a good case. They refused. ‘It is not good for us to argue the matter and give our opinions before it has come before us judicially,’ was their answer. The king was so concerned that Chief Justice Hussey had to go before him and personally beseech his forgiveness. Even so, Henry had to wait.15

When the case came up again, Abbot Sant argued eloquently that the prisoners should be returned to Culham. He had a fairly good case in law, being able to cite charters in the abbey’s possession by which an eighth-century king of Mercia had bestowed on fugitives from justice the inalienable right to seek refuge in the parish church. Although these charters were in fact thirteenth-century forgeries, they were accepted as genuine by the lawyers of the day.

Regardless of Sant’s evidence, however, the judges decided that sanctuary could no longer be pleaded in cases of high treason, and on 5 July Sir Humphrey was condemned to the statutory death of a traitor. Three days later he was hanged but cut down before he was dead, then castrated and disembowelled while still alive, his guts being burned in front of him, after which he was beheaded and quartered. His head was tarred and set up on a spike over London Bridge, his body receiving similar treatment, although the tarred quarters were displayed at towns where he was well known – presumably in the West Midlands. Thomas Stafford was pardoned, on the grounds that he had been misled by his elder brother, but lost most of his property. It was still less than a year since Bosworth.

Yet even after Henry’s countermeasures, Sir Thomas Broughton and Sir John Huddleston of Millom still held out in the North Country with other men who had fought for King Richard at Bosworth. Broughton was especially dangerous. Not only did he own very large estates, but he had unusually widespread influence all over Lancashire and Cumberland, and could rely on help from many important friends. He was hard to keep under surveillance as he was able to hide behind the separate legal jurisdiction of the Duchy of Lancaster, administered by neighbours who were well-disposed towards him.

The king cut his way through this legal jungle with a proclamation in July 1486 that accused Sir Thomas, with other northern gentlemen and yeomen, of ‘great rebellions and grave offences … against the most royal person of our sovereign lord Henry VII’, of hiding in secret places and ignoring numerous royal letters and commands. It ordered those named to present themselves in person to the king within forty days: otherwise they would be proclaimed ‘great rebels, enemies and traitors, and so forfeit their lives, lands and goods at the pleasure of our sovereign lord’.16 They came to heel, presenting themselves within the time stipulated and taking an oath of allegiance, after which they received letters of pardon. Yet neither their submission nor their oath meant that they were reconciled to the new regime.

The proclamation excluded five people from any hope of pardon: Geoffrey Franke, Edward (or Edmund) Franke, John Ward, Thomas Oter and Richard Middylton ‘otherwise called Dyk Middylton’. All had fought for King Richard at Bosworth. Their exclusion meant they had been identified as irreconcilable diehards.

Another Lancashireman whose loyalty was very suspect was Sir James Harrington of Hornby Castle. For the moment, however, it was not quite clear whether his unruliness was due to Yorkist principles or a long-running feud with the Stanley family who coveted his estates. What made him especially dangerous was the sheer number of his kindred – there were well-endowed Harringtons all over the county.

As Thomas Betanson had predicted in his letter to Sir Robert Plumpton, some sort of Yorkist rebellion had also broken out in Wales, although no details survive. We do know, however, that Jasper Tudor, Duke of Bedford, had been sent there in February 1486, presumably to guard against a rising. The other evidence is that in October Thomas Acton was rewarded with a substantial property in Herefordshire, confiscated from a Thomas Hunteley because of ‘his adherence to the rebels in Wales’.17

In January 1487, Lord Lovell at last found a boat whose skipper was ready to take him secretly across the North Sea, a vessel no doubt provided by the de la Poles. It was not the safest time of year for such a voyage, but he succeeded in reaching ‘Burgundy’. Here, at Malines, as the late king’s most loyal friend, he received a warm welcome from the Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, who was Richard III’s sister. Henry Tudor’s implacable enemy, Margaret of York was delighted to learn from Lovell that there was opposition to the new regime in many parts of England and Wales. No doubt he told her that all that was needed to overthrow the usurper was to unite the Yorkists.

In consequence, Henry VII found himself threatened by something much worse than the makeshift plot at Easter. On 29 November 1486 Thomas Betanson, who seems to have been good at picking up well-informed rumours in the capital, had written from London to Sir Robert Plumpton, that ‘here is but little speech of the Earl of Warwick now, but after Christmas, they say, there will be more speech of [him]’.18 This is infuriatingly discreet, but it seems that Betanson expected Sir Robert to read between the lines. Somehow, he must have heard that further trouble was coming, and on a more serious scale than anything Henry had faced since Bosworth.

2. Easter 1486: Lord Lovell and the Stafford Brothers

1. Bacon, p. 65.

2. The Plumpton Correspondence, OS Old Series (21), London, 1839, p. 48.

3. Ibid., p. 48.

4. Material for a History of the Reign of Henry VII, 2 vols, Rolls Series, 1873–7, vol. I, p. 143.

5. C.H. Williams, ‘The Rebellion of Sir Humphrey Stafford in 1486’, The English Historical Review, 43 (1928).

6. LP Hen VII, vol. I, p. 234.

7. Vergil, op. cit., p. 10.

8. E.H. Fonblanque, The Annals of the House of Percy, 2 vols, London, [Private Circulation], 1887, vol. I, p. 300.

9. H.T. Riley (ed.), Ingulph’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland, London, 1854, pp. 513–14.

10. Bacon, op. cit., p. 20.

11. Coram Rege Rolls, Trin. 1, Hen VII Rex. Rot. 10, quoted in Williams, ‘The Rebellion’, p. 188.

12. Material, op. cit., vol. I, p. 434.

13. Paston Letters, op. cit., p. 890.

14. J. Leland, The Itinerary of John Leland … 1535–1543, 5 vols, ed. L. Toulmin Smith, London, 1907–10, vol. 5, pp. 75–6.

15. M. Hemmant (ed.), Select Cases in the Exchequer Chamber before all Justices of England, 1461–1509, Selden Society 64, London 1943, vol. II, pp. 115–24

16. Materials, op. cit., vol. I, pp. 513–14

7. Calendar of the Fine Rolls, S.M.O., 22 vols, London, 1911–62: Henry VII, 1485–1509, vol. 22, 842.

18. Plumpton Corr, op. cit., p. 54

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