Post-classical history

Murder at Coventry

Book title

In 1469, a royal jester named Woodhouse, wearing high boots and clutching a staff, ambled into the king’s chamber. Questioned by the curious king, he explained, ‘I have passed through many countries of your realm, and in places that I have passed the Rivers have been so high that I could hardly escape through them, but was fain to search the depth with this long staff.’ Lest the reader miss the point, the Great Chronicle explained helpfully, ‘The king knew that he meant It is by the great rule which the lord Ryvers & his blood bare that time’.1 The Woodvilles had come a long way since their ‘rating’ at Calais nine years before. Unfortunately, they had also made an implacable enemy – Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick.

Edward IV’s own relationship with Warwick had been going downhill. As the Crowland Chronicler points out, the break between the men seems to have been precipitated not by Edward’s marriage (although the marriage certainly served notice that Edward was his own man), but by foreign policy.2 Warwick favoured an alliance with France, Edward IV (and the Woodvilles) with Burgundy. In September 1465, an opportunity presented itself when the Duke of Burgundy’s heir, Charles, Count of Charlois, became a widower. Edward possessed a valuable bargaining tool: his youngest sister, Margaret, who was attractive and of marriageable age.

Keeping his options open, at the end of 1466 Edward IV employed Earl Rivers and his son Anthony to treat with Burgundy while Warwick negotiated with France.3 During June 1467, when Warwick was in France, things at home were staying quite busy. The earl’s younger brother George, the Archbishop of York, was dismissed from his post as chancellor; in a particularly tactless move, Edward IV had gone to the archbishop’s sickbed at home to take away the Great Seal.4 Anthony, Count of la Roche, a half-brother of Charles known as the Bastard of Burgundy, had come to England to take part in a tournament with Anthony Woodville.5 The tournament, one of the great spectacles of the decade, had been in the making since April 1465, when Anthony, coming from Mass, was surrounded by the queen and her ladies, who tied a collar of gold around his right thigh and dropped a billet in Anthony’s cap, which he had removed from his head while kneeling before Elizabeth. Perceiving that he was charged with undertaking a chivalric enterprise, Anthony quickly consulted the king, who authorised his brother-in-law to issue an invitation to the Bastard, in which Anthony assured his opponent that he offered the challenge not through arrogance, presumption or envy, but only to obey his fair lady.

Minutely described by contemporaries, the tournament shows Edward IV’s court – and the Woodvilles – at their most glittering. On the first day of the tournament, 11 June, in the presence of King Edward and many nobles, Anthony made his entrance in a horse trapped with white cloth of gold, embroidered with a cross of St George of crimson velvet and bordered with a fringe of gold half a foot long. Eight other horses, also elaborately trapped, followed. The Duke of Clarence, the Duke of Buckingham, the Earl of Arundel, the Earl of Kent, Lord Herbert and Lord Stafford bore Anthony’s two helms, two spears and two swords. Anthony also had his own pavillion of blue satin, embroidered with his (unrecorded) motto and topped with eight banners.

The fighting between Anthony and the Bastard was spread over two days and is marked by both controversy and confusion. On the first day, the men’s horses slammed into each other, killing the Bastard’s unfortunate steed. Chester Herald reported that after the Bastard’s horse struck his saddle, Anthony rode to the king and removed his own horse’s trapper to show that there was no steel spike that could have harmed his opponent’s horse, while the Great Chronicle indicates that there was indeed a steel spike that pierced the horse’s nostrils. Olivier de Marche, a Burgundian, wrote that the stroke and the fall happened by mischance. An anonymous Burgundian, on the other hand, wrote that when the horse was examined the following day, a large piece of metal was found in its throat. As Sydney Anglo, trying to make sense of the divergent accounts five hundred years later, remarked, ‘[T]he Smithfield tournament of 1467 is especially salutary in demonstrating the dubious nature of eyewitness evidence’.

If Anthony had indeed engaged in foul play, it seems unlikely that the Bastard would have agreed to fight him the next day. Fight again the men did, this time on foot with axes and daggers, King Edward having vetoed the use of casting spears. After Anthony’s father made the sign of the cross three times over his son, and the two men exchanged taunts – Anthony is said to have yelled, ‘Ha, sa, sa, sa, sa!’ – the knights exchanged blows with their axes until the king at last called a halt to the proceedings. Chester Herald claimed that the men ignored the king’s cry of ‘Whoo!’, while the anonymous Burgundian chronicler maintained that Anthony unilaterally disregarded the order to stop. Olivier de la Marche, who described the axe fighting as the fiercest he had seen, claimed that Anthony’s armour was covered with gashes inflicted by the Bastard, and the other Burgundian chronicler noted that the third shoulder plate of the Bastard’s armour had been hacked away. The exhausted men parted courteously and repaired to their lodgings. Over the next few days, other men fought, including Anthony’s friend Louis de Bretaylle, a Gascon who was attended by both Anthony and his father.

The Smithfield tournament was not the Bastard’s only mission in England, however. While lodging at the Bishop of Salisbury’s house at Chelsea, he received a visit from Edward IV, Lord Hastings, Earl Rivers, and others. The king and the Bastard met privately in the garden for over half an hour, after which they were joined by Earl Rivers and treated to wine and spices. It seems likely that the visit was not merely a social occasion, but an occasion for some negotiations behind the scenes.6 The issue of Charles’s marriage assumed even more importance when, on 19 June, the festivities were cut short by the news that Philip, Duke of Burgundy, had died on 15 June, leaving Charles as the new Burgundian ruler. On 25 June, Anthony bade farewell at Dover to the Bastard.7

Warwick, who had been heaped with gifts of plate and luxurious fabrics during his stay at the French court, came back to find himself in eclipse. He had brought his own French embassy with him, who departed in August with no more than some modest gifts of hunting horns, leather bottles, and mastiffs and the king’s promise to send a return embassy.8 Lest anyone be in doubt as to how the wind had shifted, on the same day that the French embassy embarked for home, Edward announced that he had renewed a peace pact with Burgundy.9 Warwick returned in high dudgeon to his estates in the north, while Margaret of York agreed on 30 September to marry the new Duke of Burgundy. Ten days earlier, Anthony Woodville and others had been commissioned to go to Burgundy and treat with the duke.10

Warwick made no secret of his displeasure with this turn of events. Sent to England by Louis XI to make contact with Warwick, the pleasantly named William Monypenny wrote that on 7 January 1467, Warwick had refused a summons to court on the grounds that he would not go to the king as long as Earl Rivers, his son Lord Scales, and William, Lord Herbert (another upstart, and a Welsh one at that) were with him. That same month, Earl Rivers’s house at Maidstone was attacked by Warwick’s tenants, probably at Warwick’s instigation.11 Despite this, Earl Rivers met at Nottingham with the Archbishop of York, who in turn persuaded Warwick, his brother, to attend a council meeting at Coventry. There, Warwick was reconciled with Herbert, as well as with some other men who had landed on Warwick’s enemies list. No reconciliation with the Woodvilles, however, was forthcoming.12

Warwick was on sufficiently good terms with the king in July 1468 to join Edward and his brothers in escorting Margaret, the king’s sister, to Margate, from where she was to embark to go to her new groom in Burgundy.13 It was Anthony Woodville, however, who crossed the seas with Margaret, serving as her presenter and underscoring the role that the queen’s relations had taken in promoting the Burgundian match. First among Margaret’s ladies was Elizabeth Talbot, Duchess of Norfolk; the second was Lady Scales, Anthony’s bride, making a rare appearance in the historical records. Anthony’s younger brother John (he of the elderly bride) was on hand as well. They were in rarefied company: as John Paston III wrote to his mother from Bruges, ‘And as for the duke’s court, as of lords, ladies and gentlewomen, knights, squires and gentlemen, I have never of no like to it, save King Arthur’s court. And by my troth, I have no wit nor remembrance to write to you, half the worship that is here’.14

Both Anthony and his brother took part in the splendid tournaments that followed the ducal wedding. Anthony did not joust against the Bastard of Burgundy this time, as, according to John Paston, the men had vowed at Smithfield not to meet again in arms. The Bastard, however, led Anthony onto the field.15 As for John, he was beginning to come into his own as a jouster; in the spring of 1467, he and Lord Hastings, among others, had jousted against a team which included Edward IV and Anthony Woodville.16 In Burgundy he was declared the prince of the tournament for three reasons: he was a foreigner; he was young and handsome; and he had acquitted himself honourably.17

Even at the glittering Burgundian court, however, reality had intruded itself upon the wedding celebrations. The Duke of Burgundy had been supporting several Lancastrian exiles, notably Edmund Beaufort, who thanks to the killing of his father at St Albans in 1455 and the execution of his brother at Hexham in 1465 was the latest Duke of Somerset, at least nominally. To avoid the awkwardness of having a prominent Lancastrian present at the Duke of Burgundy’s marriage to the sister of the Yorkist king, Somerset had been sent out of Bruges the day before Margaret’s arrival.18 His absence did not stop two members of the Duchess of Norfolk’s train, John Poynings and William Alford, from being executed in November on suspicion of having had ‘familiar communication’ with Somerset during their trip abroad.19

Edward’s reign was, in fact, running into problems. Edward had raised taxes, a move as unpopular as such moves generally are, with little to show for it, and he had failed to contain the lawlessness which had been a hallmark of the last disastrous years of Henry VI’s reign.20 It was a situation ripe for exploitation by Edward’s enemies, at home and abroad. In June, in the midst of the wedding preparations, the suspected Lancastrian courier Cornelius had been arrested, leading to the arrest of Thomas Cook and others. Sir Richard Woodville, the queen’s brother, himself captured Thomas Danvers, the recipient of a letter carried by Cornelius. More arrests, including those of Poynings and Alford, followed in November, including that of one Richard Steres, recalled fondly as one of ‘the cunningist players at the tennis in England’.21 Besides the sporting Richard Steres, the government netted three alarmingly high-profile individuals: Sir Thomas Hungerford, whose Lancastrian father had been executed at Hexham in 1464, after fighting for Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, Henry Courtenay, the Earl of Devon’s heir, and John de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Warwick’s brother-in-law. Said to be kept in irons in his Tower cell, Oxford ‘confessed much things’ and was eventually released. The others were not so lucky: Poynings, Alford, and Steres were executed in November 1468, and Hungerford and Courtenay were tried and executed the following January.22 Oxford was eventually released.

The Earl of Warwick then began brewing trouble of his own. His rebellion started at the altar. For some time, the earl had been hoping to marry his eldest daughter, Isabel, to Edward IV’s brother George, Duke of Clarence, and when the king balked at the idea, Warwick and his prospective son-in-law, aided by the earl’s younger brother, the Archbishop of York, secretly procured a papal dispensation in March 1469 for the couple to marry.23

That same spring, a pair of mysterious characters named Robin of Redesdale and Robin of Holderness stirred risings against the king in Yorkshire, which were put down handily by Warwick’s younger brother, John Neville, Earl of Northumberland. When another rising broke out around 28 May 1469, ostensibly by Robin of Redesdale again, the king was not unduly alarmed. He went on pilgrimage to Walsingham, taking with him his father-in-law, Anthony and John Woodville, and his younger brother Richard, among others.24 Elizabeth had borne her husband his third daughter, Cecily, on 20 March 1469;25 as Walsingham was strongly associated with childbirth, perhaps the king was giving thanks for the latest arrival as well as making a heavenly request that his next child would be a son. As he made his way toward the shrine, he was making preparations to go to the north in person. The queen, who would have recently returned to public life after her churching, was staying at Fotheringay, where the king arrived on 25 June and spent a week.26

Warwick too was travelling – to Calais, with his brother the archbishop, his daughter Isabel, and Edward’s brother George in tow. This was no innocent voyage, for this latest rebellion, far from being the product of spontaneous outrage, was almost certainly instigated by Warwick, with Robin de Redesdale being the nom de guerre of a member of the prominent Conyers family, who were Warwick’s retainers.27

The earl arrived in Calais on 6 July, soon after which Edward’s suspicions of his cousin and brother were awakened. On 9 July, he wrote to Warwick, Clarence, and the Archbishop of York, asking courteously that they come to him and refute the rumours that had been circulating about them. Instead, at Calais on 11 July in front of an assembled company which included five Knights of the Garter, the Archbishop of York officiated at the wedding of Clarence and Isabel.28

Clarence did not tarry in the marital bedchamber. The next day, he and his new father-in-law issued a manifesto, one of the sort that would make any medieval king’s heart sink. Comparing Edward to Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, all of whom had been deposed (and two of whom had been murdered afterward), Warwick and Clarence accused Edward of having fallen prey to the ‘covetous rule and guiding of certain seditious persons’, namely, Earl Rivers and his wife Jacquetta, William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon, Anthony Woodville, Lord Scales, John, Lord Audley, Sir John Woodville and his brothers, John Fogge, and ‘others of their mischievous rule, opinion, and assent’.29

All of these people were upstarts, at least in Warwick’s eyes. William Herbert, a Welshman known as Edward IV’s ‘master-lock’, had been made the Earl of Pembroke in September 1468; he was Edward’s principal lieutenant in South Wales and the first full-blooded Welshman to enter the English peerage.30 Humphrey Stafford was an even newer earl, having been granted his Devon title in May 1469 along with the forfeited lands of Henry Courtenay, executed in January.31 John Fogge, a former treasurer of Edward IV’s household, was a royal councillor and was also married to Alice Haute, whose mother, Joan Woodville, was Earl Rivers’s sister.32 John Tuchet, Lord Audley, had become a Yorkist after being taken prisoner at Calais in 1460.33 None of these men were parasites; all gave the king valuable services in return for the royal favour they enjoyed. But Warwick wanted them gone. To accomplish this end, he summoned his supporters to meet him at Coventry on 16 July. Having crossed the Channel, he marched from Canterbury to London, then began a march toward Coventry.34

Meanwhile, as ‘Robin of Redesdale’ and his northern followers headed south, the earls of Devon and Herbert led troops to confront them. The details of the battle that followed are thoroughly murky. Even the date is in dispute; Barry Lewis has argued for 24 July 1469.35 The outcome, at least, is clear: Herbert’s men were defeated by the rebels, after a fierce battle to which Devon’s men arrived late or even not at all. Herbert and his younger brother were captured.

Warwick and his son-in-law arrived at Northampton, where they began the congenial business of killing their enemies. Herbert and his brother were executed there – entirely illegally, as they had not been in rebellion against the king – on 27 July.

During this time, Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by her young daughters, had been enjoying the hospitality of the town of Norwich, following her husband’s successful visit to the city during his recent pilgrimage.36 The town had spared no effort in impressing the queen, even engaging the services of a John Parnell to assist it in staging pageants. When the big day arrived, sometime in the middle of July, a stage had been erected at the Westwick Gate. On stage were two giants made of wood and leather, stuffed with hay, as well as two patriarchs, twelve apostles, sixteen virgins, and Gabriel, played by a local friar. A Gilbert Spirling staged a pageant of the Salutation of Mary and Elizabeth, a theme evidently chosen as a nod to the queen. At Blackfriars, the queen, seated in a great chair brought over from Norwich Cathedral for her use, enjoyed a musical performance by a boys’ choir. The occasion was literally dampened by a torrential rain, but the townspeople, well prepared for disaster, hustled the queen to dry lodgings inside the Blackfriars and quickly moved the props and performers out of harm’s way.

As the citizens of Norwich relaxed after this latest royal visit, Edward IV, writing from Nottingham on 29 July, thanked the citizens of Coventry for sending men to his aid. He seems to have been unaware of the disaster at Edgecote.37 Shortly thereafter he rode south, where at some point most of his entourage seems to have deserted him, perhaps spooked by the news of the battle. Learning of his whereabouts and his vulnerable position, George Neville, Archbishop of York, captured the king, acting on the advice of Warwick and Clarence. England was now in the bizarre position of having two captive kings.

Edward IV, no doubt reflecting on the fates of Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, as encouraged to do by Warwick’s manifesto, was at Coventry on 2 August and at Warwick Castle from 8 to 13 August.38 At Nottingham, he had sent his Woodville in-laws away for safety, Earl Rivers and his son John to Wales, Anthony Woodville to Norfolk. Waurin (not, however, an eyewitness) tells us that the king, believing that ‘everything came from the envy that people had for the said Lord Rivers’, spoke to Rivers, who responded, ‘Sire, I am ready to do your will, because I do not wish that there should be discord between you and your blood on account of me’.39 Nothing is heard of Earl Rivers again until 12 August, when, in the same lawless spirit that had prompted the executions of Herbert and his brother, father and son were executed at Gosford Green outside of Coventry, having been captured at Chepstow.40 Another death soon followed: The Earl of Devon, who had escaped from Edgecote, was caught by a mob at Bridgwater in Somerset and murdered on 17 August.41

We know nothing about the last hours of the queen’s father and brother. It was a sad end for Earl Rivers, whom fortune had flung so high, and for John, only about age 25. In June 1470, Jacquetta brought an action in King’s Bench against those she held responsible for her husband’s death, including Warwick, who by then had fled for France. Nothing seems to have come of it, probably due to the political upheavals of 1470–71 and the death of the main culprit at Barnet in May 1471.42 Later, Walter Blount, Lord Mountjoy, would provide in his will for masses to be said for the souls of Earl Rivers and John, who must have been friends of his.43 For his part, Anthony Woodville arranged for his younger brother’s memory to be commemorated at Eton College, for which, he recalled, John had had ‘zeal love and sing[u]ler devotion’. Anthony may have had his brother buried there. Waurin indicates that the king also mourned the deaths of Earl Rivers and John, ‘because he loved them very much’.44

At what time Elizabeth Woodville learned of the deaths of her father and her brother and of the capture of her husband is unknown, but she appears to have returned to London by 31 July, when the mayor and aldermen voted to make her a gift of wine.45 On 16 August, the Milanese ambassador reported from London, ‘The Earl of Warwick, as astute a man as ever was Ulysses, is at the king’s side, and from what they say the king is not at liberty to go where he wishes. The queen is here and keeps very scant state’.46

In the midst of their mourning, the queen and her family also had the fate of Edward IV to worry about. Would Henry VI be brought out of captivity to rule as Warwick’s puppet? More likely, would Warwick’s new son-in-law, the Duke of Clarence, take his brother Edward’s place on the throne? Or would Edward be the subject of a protectorate, as the hapless Henry VI had been after the first Battle of St Albans? While Warwick pondered these possibilities, he appointed Sir John Langstrother as treasurer in place of Earl Rivers and himself as Chief Justice and Chamberlain of South Wales in Pembroke’s place. He also summoned Parliament, presumably to give its stamp of approval to whatever course of action he had in mind.47

But events intervened. Far from settling into docility after the killing of the king’s favourites, the mischief-makers of England took full advantage of this confused state of affairs. London rioted; the Burgundian ambassadors there, probably much to Warwick’s chagrin, were able to help sooth matters.48 The Duke of Norfolk, who claimed a right to the Paston family’s prized Caister Castle, laid siege to it, crisply snubbing the Duke of Clarence’s attempt to intervene – a failure which hardly boded well for a reign of King George.49 The Berkeley and Talbot family feud reignited, as did the feud between the Stanleys and the Harringtons. More problematically, a cousin of Warwick’s, Sir Humphrey Neville, staged a revolt on behalf of Henry VI. This rising proved impossible to put down without royal authority, and it seems that Warwick was compelled to back down. Edward raised troops in his own name, crushed the rebellion, beheaded Humphrey and his brother, summoned his lords, and returned to London in October, a free man.50

Warwick’s rebellion had expired with a whimper, but not before costing two of the Woodvilles, and others, their lives. Oddly, a third Woodville, Anthony, had not shared their fate: around the time of his father’s and brother’s deaths, he had been captured and taken to Norwich, where he remained as a prisoner until 25 August, at which time he was removed to an unnamed location. Nothing indicates why Warwick spared his life; perhaps Edward IV’s reaction when told of the death of his other followers had shaken the earl’s nerve, or perhaps Warwick had decided for some reason that Anthony’s execution would not be advisable.51

By the autumn of 1469, soon after Edward IV’s own return to London, Anthony Woodville, now Earl Rivers, was back at court, where he was soon mingling uneasily with Warwick, who at least on the surface had reconciled with the king. Life was very far from returning to normal for the Woodvilles, however. The matriarch of the family, Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford, was facing trial as an accused witch.

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