Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Elizabeth (Jane) Shore, (d. 1527)

Through sexual liaisons with EDWARD IV and several prominent courtiers, Elizabeth Shore, better known as Jane Shore, became entangled in the political intrigues that led to the usurpation of RICHARD III and the revival of civil war in the 1480s.

One of Edward IV’s many mistresses, Shore was, according to Sir Thomas More’s HISTORY OF KING RICHARD III, the king’s favorite— less for her beauty than for her engaging personality. “Proper she was and fair. . . . Yet delighted not men so much in her beauty, as in her pleasant behaviour. For a proper wit had she, and could both read well and write, merry of company, ready and quick of answer, neither mute nor full of babble, sometimes taunting without displeasure and not without disport” (Ross, Richard III, p. 137).

The daughter of a LONDON merchant and the wife of William Shore, a London goldsmith, Jane Shore may have become the king’s mistress in about 1470. Although Edward never allowed his lovers to become political figures, Shore, again according to More, exercised a benign influence over the king, tending to mollify him when he was angry or displeased with anyone.

Upon Edward’s death in April 1483, Shore may have become the lover of Thomas GREY, marquis of Dorset, and then of his rival, William HASTINGS, Lord Hastings. If this second relationship occurred, it may have involved her in politics, for on 13 June 1483, at a council meeting in the TOWER OF LONDON, Richard, duke of Gloucester, charged Shore and Queen Elizabeth WOODVILLE with trying, on Hastings’s urging, to destroy him through sorcery. The accusation led to Hastings’s summary execution and to Shore’s arrest. Forced soon after to do public penance as a harlot by walking through London dressed only in her kirtle (underskirt or gown) and carrying a lighted taper, Shore was afterward imprisoned in Ludgate. Although it is possible that Shore participated, perhaps as a go-between, in anti-Gloucester plots involving either Hastings or Dorset, her active cooperation with her late lover’s wife in sorcery is most unlikely. Both contemporary writers, like More and Polydore Vergil in his ANGLICA HISTORIA, and many modern historians believe that Gloucester’s charges were largely invented to destroy Hastings, who was loyal to EDWARDV and thus a serious obstacle to the duke’s plan to take the throne.

While in prison, Shore charmed the king’s solicitor, Thomas Lynom, who sought permission to marry her, Shore’s husband having presumably died. Richard III (the former duke of Gloucester) told his chancellor, John RUSSELL, bishop of Lincoln, to dissuade Lynom from such a foolish action, but he gave permission for the match should the solicitor be adamant. Whether or not the marriage occurred is unclear, for beside the fact that she was still living in London in poverty in Henry VIII’s reign, almost nothing is known of Shore’s life after 1484.

Further Reading: Ross, Charles, Edward IV (New Haven, CT:Yale University Press, 1998); Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981); Seward, Desmond, The Wars of the Roses (New York:Viking, 1995).


The flamboyant Edward IV shares with his luckless rival Henry VI the dubious distinction of being the only king of England to reign twice. In 1461 and 1471, thanks to Warwick the Kingmaker, the two men played box and cox in what turned out to be a humiliating royal timeshare. But after Edward had defeated Warwick and disposed of Henry, he ruled for a dozen prosperous and largely undisturbed years, during which he achieved another distinction. He was the first king for more than a century and a half who did not die in debt — in fact, he actually left his successor a little money in the kitty.

Edward was England’s first and last businessman monarch. Clapping folk around the shoulders and cracking dirty jokes, he was also an unashamed wheeler-dealer. He set up his own trading business, making handsome profits on exporting wool and tin to Italy, while importing Mediterranean cargoes like wine, paper, sugar and oranges. He ran the Crown lands with the keen eye of a bailiff, and when it came to PR with the merchant community he was a master of corporate hospitality.

One day in 1482 Edward invited the Lord Mayor of London, the aldermen and ‘a certain number of such head commoners as the mayor would assign’ to join him in the royal forest at Waltham in Essex. There, in today’s golf-course country, they were treated to a morning of sport, then conveyed ‘to a strong and pleasant lodge made of green boughs and other pleasant things. Within which lodge were laid certain tables, whereat at once the said mayor and his company were set and served right plenteously with all manner of dainties… and especially of venison, both of red deer and of fallow.’ After lunch the King took his guests hunting again, and a few days later sent their wives ‘two harts and six bucks with a tun of Gascon Wine’.

It could be said that Edward IV invented the seductive flummery of the modern honours list when he made six London aldermen Knights of the Bath. Like the Order of the Garter, the Order of the Bath, which referred to the ritual cleansing that a squire underwent when he became a knight, was primarily a military honour. Now the King extended the bait to rich civilians that he wanted to keep on side: a moneylender would kneel down as Bill Bloggs, the sword would touch his shoulder, and he arose Sir William.

Edward understood that everyone had his price — himself included. In 1475 he had taken an army across the Channel where he met up with the French King at Picquigny near Amiens — and promptly did a deal to take his army home again. For a down payment of 75,000 crowns and a pension of 50,000 a year, he cheerfully sold off his birthright — England’s claim to the French territories for which so many of his ancestors had fought so bloodily over the years.

The Treaty of Picquigny brought peace and prosperity to England, but not much honour. Edward’s reign was too undramatic for Shakespeare to write a play about — one reason, perhaps, why Edward is sometimes called England’s ‘forgotten king’. But the beautiful St George’s Chapel at Windsor, designed to outshine the chapel that his rival Henry VI had built at Eton College in the valley below, remains his memorial. And the Royal Book reveals a sumptuous court — along with a diverting little insight into how comfortably this fleshly monarch lived. After he had risen every morning, a yeoman was deputed to leap on to his bed and roll up and down so as to level out the lumps in the litter of bracken and straw that made up the royal mattress.

In 1483, Edward IV retired to his mattress unexpectedly, having caught a chill while fishing. He died some days later, aged only forty. Had this cynical yet able man lived just a few years longer, his elder son Edward, only twelve at the time of his death, might have been able to build on his legacy. As it was, young Edward and his younger brother soon found themselves inside the Tower of London, courtesy of their considerate uncle Richard.


Caxton showing the first specimen of his printing to King Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth at the Almonry, Westminster.

Wars and Roses… we have seen that roses were rare on the battle banners of fifteenth-century England. Let’s now take a closer look at the ‘wars’ themselves. In the thirty-two years that history textbooks conventionally allot to the ‘Wars of the Roses’, there were long periods of peace. In fact, there were only thirteen weeks of actual fighting — and though the battles themselves were bitter and sometimes very bloody, mayhem and ravaging seldom ensued.

’It is a custom in England,’ reported Philippe de Commynes, a shrewd French visitor to England in the 1470s, ‘that the victors in battle kill nobody, especially none of the ordinary soldiers’. In this curiously warless warfare, defeated noblemen could expect prompt and ruthless execution, but ‘neither the country nor the people, nor the houses were wasted, destroyed or demolished’. The rank and file returned home as soon as they could, to continue farming their land.

In towns and cities people also got on with their lives. Trade and business positively flourished, generating contracts, ledgers and letters that called for a literate workforce — and it was the ‘grammar’ schools that taught this emerging class of office workers the practical mechanics of English and Latin. The grammar schools multiplied in the fifteenth century, and the demand for accessible low-price books that they helped generate was met by an invention that was to prove infinitely more important than considerations of who was nudging whom off the throne.

In 1469 William Caxton, an English merchant living in the prosperous Flemish trading town of Bruges, was finishing a book that he had researched. Caxton was a trader in rich cloths — a mercer like Richard Whittington — and books were his passion. He collected rare books, and he wrote for his own pleasure, scratching out the text laboriously with a quill on to parchment. The book he was currently completing was a history of the ancient Greek city of Troy, and the mercer, who was approaching his fiftieth birthday, was feeling weary. ‘My pen is worn, mine hand heavy, my eye even dimmed,’ he wrote. The prospect of copying out more versions of the manuscript for the friends who had expressed an interest was too much to contemplate. So Caxton decided to see what he could discover about the craft of printing, which had been pioneered by Johann Gutenberg in the 1440s in the Rhine Valley.

Travelling south-east from Bruges, he arrived on the Rhine nearly thirty years after Gutenberg had started work there. And having ‘practised and learned’ the technique for himself, the mercer turned printer went back to Bruges to set up his own press. In 1474 his History of Troy became the first book to be printed in English, and two years later he brought his press to England, setting up shop near the Chapter House, in the precinct of Westminster Abbey, where Parliament met.

Caxton had an eye for a good location. Along the route between the Palace of Westminster and the Chapter House shuttled lawyers, churchmen, courtiers, MPs — the book-buying elite of England. The former cloth trader also had an eye for a bestseller. The second book he printed was about chess, The Game and Play of the Chesse. Then came in fairly quick succession a French-English dictionary, a translation of Aesop’s fables, several popular romances, Malory’s tale of Camelot in the Morte D’Arthur, some school textbooks, a history of England, an encyclopaedia entitled The Myrrour of the Worlde, and Chaucer’s bawdy evergreen, The Canterbury Tales.

More than five hundred years later a copy of Caxton’s first edition of Chaucer became the most expensive book ever sold — knocked down at auction for £4.6 million. But in the fifteenth century the obvious appeal of the newly printed books lay in their value for money. Books became so commonplace that snobs sometimes employed scribes to copy Caxton’s printed editions back into manuscript — while both Church and government became alarmed at the access to new ideas that the printing press offered to a widening public.

Over the centuries Caxton’s innovation would marvellously stimulate diversity in thinking, but in one important respect its impact was to standardise. Caxton loved to write personal prefaces to his publications, explaining the background of the new book he was sharing with his readers, and in one of these he describes the difficulties of being England’s first mass publisher. He was in his study, he relates, feeling rather bereft, looking for a new project to get his teeth into, and happened to pick up the recently published French version of Virgil’s Aeneid. The editor in him couldn’t resist trying to translate the great epic poem into English. Taking a pen, he wrote out a page or two. But when he came to read through what he had written, he had to wonder whether his customers in different corners of England would be able to understand it, since ‘common English that is spoken in one shire varies from another’.

To make the point he recounted the tale of a group of English merchants who, when their ship was becalmed at the mouth of the Thames, decided to go ashore in search of a good breakfast. One of them asked for some ’eggys’, to be told by the Kentish wife that she did not understand French. Since the merchant himself only spoke and understood English, he started to get angry, until one of his companions said he would like some ’eyren’ — and the woman promptly reached for the egg basket.

’Loo,’ exclaimed Caxton, ‘what sholde a man in thyse dayes now wryte — egges or eyren?’

Even in this account you may notice that Caxton himself first spelled the word ’eggys’, then ’egges’ a few lines later. As the printer-publisher produced more and more books — and when he died in 1491 he was on the point of printing his hundredth — he made his own decisions about how words should be spelled. His choices tended to reflect the language of the south-east of England, with which he was familiar — he was proud to come from Kent, ’where I doubt not is spoken as broad and rude English as is in any place of England.’

Many of Caxton’s spelling decisions and those of the printers who came after him were quite arbitrary. As they matched letters to sounds they followed no particular rules, and we live with the consequences to this day. So if you have ever wondered why a bandage is ‘wound’ around a ‘wound’, why ‘cough’ rhymes with ‘off’ while ‘bough’ rhymes with cow’, and why you might shed a ‘tear’ after seeing a ‘tear’ in your best dress or trousers, you have William Caxton to thank for the confusion.

John Russell, Bishop of Lincoln (d. 1494)

Lincoln Cathedral, arms of Bishop John Russell on enamelled brass escutcheon on his tomb in Russell Chantry.

Bishop John Russell of Lincoln was an important clerical servant of EDWARD IV and chancellor of England under RICHARD III.

Born in Winchester, Russell was educated at Oxford, where he taught until about 1462. In the mid-1460s, he entered the service of Edward IV, who employed Russell on various diplomatic missions, including the negotiations surrounding the marriage of the king’s sister, MARGARET OF YORK, to Duke CHARLES of BURGUNDY in 1468. In February 1471, Russell also acted as a diplomat for the READEPTION government of HENRY VI, but he was readily taken back into Yorkist service after Edward IV’s restoration in April. In 1472, Edward again sent Russell to Burgundy, and in 1474, the king appointed him keeper of the privy seal and dispatched him to SCOTLAND to negotiate a marriage between Edward’s daughter Cecily and the son of JAMES III. Russell became bishop of Rochester in 1476 and bishop of Lincoln in 1480. One of the executors of Edward IV’s will, Russell helped officiate at the king’s funeral in April 1483.

On 10 May 1483, Richard, duke of Gloucester, having assumed the protectorship of his nephew EDWARD V, dismissed Archbishop Thomas ROTHERHAM of York from the chancellorship, replacing him with Russell. According to some sources, the bishop, who was experienced and learned and a natural choice for the post, accepted office with reluctance. Although Russell served Gloucester loyally when he became king as Richard III, there seems to have been no close bond between Richard and his chancellor, who may have felt betrayed when Richard took his nephew’s crown in June 1483. In any event, as chancellor, Russell handled negotiations with both Scotland and BRITTANY, and he may have assisted Archbishop Thomas BOURCHIER in persuading Queen Elizabeth WOODVILLE to release her younger son, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, into Gloucester’s custody. Having perhaps grown uncertain of his chancellor’s loyalty, Richard dismissed Russell from office on 29 July 1485, less than a month before the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD. After Richard’s death, Russell was taken readily into favor by HENRYVII, who, like his Yorkist predecessors, employed the bishop as a diplomat. After spending his last years mainly in his diocese, Russell died in December 1494.

Because Russell closely fit the author profile that emerges from the work itself—an educated cleric who was familiar with the workings of Richard’s government and who was an eyewitness to at least some of the events being described—some modern historians identified Russell as the author of the CROYLAND CHRONICLE, a useful source for the last decade of Edward IV and for the reign of Richard III. However, most scholars today dismiss that claim, arguing that the Chronicle is much different in style from any of Russell’s known writings.

Further Reading: Ross, Charles, Richard III (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981).

Plumpton Letters and Papers

The surviving letters and papers of the Plumptons of Yorkshire are a valuable source of information on the lives and concerns of a northern GENTRY family during the WARS OF THE ROSES.

The Plumpton archive contains about 250 letters and almost 1,000 estate and other family documents. The correspondence dates from 1461 to the mid-sixteenth century, with most of the letters written during the reigns of HENRYVII and Henry VIII, when the family was headed by Sir Robert Plumpton (1453–1525) and his son William Plumpton (d. 1547). For the civil wars, the most relevant letters are the earlier ones relating to EDWARD IV’s reign; this correspondence concerns Sir Robert’s father, Sir William Plumpton (1404–1480), who was a long-standing RETAINER of the Percy earls of Northumberland. As rivals of the NEVILLE FAMILY (see NEVILLE-PERCY FEUD), the Percies were partisans of the house of LANCASTER, and Sir William followed his lord, Henry PERCY, third earl of Northumberland, into the service of HENRYVI. Sir William fought at the Battle of TOWTON in 1461 and spent some months following the battle in confinement in the TOWER OF LONDON, but he somehow escaped ATTAINDER by the Yorkist PARLIAMENT.

In the 1460s, Sir William lived uneasily under the northern dominance of Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, but won greater favor with the house of YORK after 1470, when Edward IV released the Percy heir from confinement and recognized him as Henry PERCY, fourth earl of Northumberland. Through the patronage of the new earl, Sir William held a number of local offices, as did his son Sir Robert, who fought under Northumberland in the duke of Gloucester’s campaigns in SCOTLAND in the early 1480s. Although the letters for RICHARD III’s reign are few, those from the previous decade shed light on Richard’s exercise of power in the north as duke of Gloucester.

The letters for the reign of Henry VII are fuller and more numerous, describing such events as the coronation of Henry’s queen, ELIZABETH OFYORK; the suppression of the northern rebellion of 1489, which began with the murder of Northumberland; and the trials in 1499 of Perkin WARBECK, the Yorkist pretender, and Edward PLANTAGENET, earl of Warwick, the remaining male heir of the house of York. Besides illuminating key events in the north, the letters from the years before 1500 provide a limited but useful view of the political activities of a gentry family during the Yorkist and early Tudor periods.

Further Reading: Kirby, Joan, ed., The Plumpton Letters and Papers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996); Stapleton, Thomas, ed., The Plumpton Correspondence (London: Camden Society, 1839; reprint, Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1990).

Woodville Family


Between 1464 and 1483, the Woodvilles, the family of EDWARD IV’s queen, comprised the most favored and resented political grouping in England. Jealousy over their rapid rise to power at the Yorkist COURT, coupled with hatred caused by their greed, ambition, and arrogance, made the Woodvilles a disruptive political influence that was partially responsible for the USURPATION OF 1483 and the eventual fall of the house of YORK.

The Woodvilles’ social rise was based on two spectacular m├ęsalliances. The first, in 1436, was the secret marriage of Richard WOODVILLE, a Northamptonshire gentleman, to JACQUETTA OF LUXEMBOURG, the widowed duchess of Bedford and a descendent of European nobility. The second, in 1464, was the secret marriage of their eldest daughter, Elizabeth WOODVILLE, to Edward IV. Prior to 1461, Woodville, then Lord Rivers, had been a Lancastrian; he and his eldest son Anthony WOODVILLE, Lord Scales, had fought for HENRY VI at the Battle of TOWTON, while Elizabeth’s first husband, Sir John Grey of Groby, died fighting for the house of LANCASTER at the Battle of ST.ALBANS in 1461. After Towton, Rivers submitted, and by 1463 he was a member of Edward IV’s COUNCIL. However, the family’s political and social advancement became unprecedented in speed and scope after the king’s marriage to Elizabeth.

Other than her beauty, the new queen brought her husband no political advantages and a host of problems, not the least of which was providing for her large family, which, besides her parents, included five brothers, seven sisters, and two sons by Grey. Between 1464 and 1466, Edward and the queen obtained numerous highborn spouses for unmarried Woodvilles. Several of these marriages angered Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, the king’s chief advisor. For instance, in 1464, Margaret Woodville married Warwick’s nephew, the son of the earl of Arundel. In 1465, the court was shocked by the marriage of twenty-year-old John Woodville to Warwick’s kinswoman, Katherine Neville, the sixty-five-year-old dowager duchess of Norfolk. The marriages of Anne Woodville to the son of Henry BOURCHIER, earl of Essex; of Eleanor Woodville to the son of Edmund GREY, earl of Kent; and of Katherine Woodville to Henry STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham, deprived Warwick’s daughters, Isabel and Anne NEVILLE, of prospective husbands. The marriage of the queen’s son, Thomas GREY, to the daughter of Henry HOLLAND, duke of Exeter, claimed the bride who had been promised to the son of Warwick’s brother, John NEVILLE, Lord Montagu. Nor was Warwick happy with the marriage of Mary Woodville to the son of William HERBERT, the earl’s rival for lands and influence in WALES.

Although Warwick ascribed his declining influence with the king to the Woodvilles, most of the English nobility accepted the family and sought to exploit their favor at court. Nonetheless, the Woodvilles were highly unpopular. With the exception of Scales, who became head of the family as Earl Rivers after Warwick executed his father in 1469, contemporary observers characterized the Woodvilles as greedy, ambitious, overbearing, and a malign influence on the king. For instance, in 1468, the family’s ill-treatment of Sir Thomas COOK was said to have cost that LONDON merchant his fortune and turned him into a convinced Lancastrian, and in the 1480s, the Grey brothers and Edward Woodville were condemned for encouraging the king’s drinking and womanizing. Although Warwick’s desertion of the house of York in 1470 was a result of the king’s independence and the earl’s ambition,Warwick’s hatred for the Woodvilles was a contributing factor. In the 1470s, Woodville influence seemed even more sinister as it increased while the competition disappeared— the NEVILLE FAMILY was destroyed in 1471; the king’s one brother, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence, was executed in 1478; and his other brother, Richard, duke of Gloucester, withdrew from court to govern the north.

At Edward IV’s death in 1483, the reign of EDWARD V seemed likely to open with a Woodville-dominated regency, a prospect that frightened many noblemen, including Gloucester and William HASTINGS, Lord Hastings, a close friend of the late king and a rival of both Rivers and of the queen’s son, Thomas Grey, marquis of Dorset. As governor of the prince after 1473, Rivers controlled the person of the new king and exercised great power in Wales, where he could quickly recruit large numbers of men. In London, the queen and Dorset controlled the TOWER OF LONDON, the royal treasure, and the young king’s brother, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, while Sir Edward Woodville controlled the fleet. Gloucester probably had good cause to fear for his future in a Woodville-dominated government. By playing on the family’s unpopularity, Gloucester was able to mask his own ambitions and to convince men like Hastings to support his initial moves to control the regency. Unable to generate much support from other nobles, the Woodville influence was in ruins by the end of 1483. Rivers and Sir Richard Grey were executed, Dorset and Bishop Lionel WOODVILLE were in exile, the queen was in SANCTUARY, and Gloucester was king as Richard III. The usurpation of Edward V’s throne and the subsequent disappearance and probable murder of the young king and his brother were in some part made possible by the actions and unpopularity of the Woodville family.

Further Reading: Hicks, Michael, “The Changing Role of the Wydevilles in Yorkist Politics to 1483,” in Charles Ross, ed., Patronage, Pedigree and Power in Later Medieval England (Stroud, Gloucestershire, UK: Alan Sutton, 1979), pp. 60–86; MacGibbon, David, Elizabeth Woodville: Her Life and Times (London: A. Barker, 1938); Ross, Charles, Edward IV (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

Executions Post-Battle

At the Battle of Hexham, the executions of captured Lancastrians after the battle may have rivaled the number of men killed during the actual fighting. Warwick and his brother John NEVILLE, Lord Montagu, who were rarely hesitant to dispatch captured opponents, executed over two dozen Lancastrian leaders after Hexham, including Henry BEAUFORT, duke of Somerset; Robert HUNGERFORD, Lord Hungerford; and Thomas ROOS, Lord Roos. Although the number of noble and GENTRY dead, both in the fighting and through execution afterward, was high in many battles, the number of casualties among the commons probably was counted in the hundreds for all battles except the largest, such as the Battles of Towton, BARNET, and TEWKESBURY.

Yorkist Heirs (after 1485)

Duke of Suffolk Arms

Richard de la Pole (died February 24, 1525 in Pavia, Duchy of Milan) was a pretender to the English crown. Commonly nicknamed White Rose, he was the last Head of the House of York to actively and openly seek the crown of England. He lived in exile after many of his relatives were executed; here he became allied with Louis XII of France in the War of the League of Cambrai, who saw him as a more favourable ally and prospect for an English king than Henry VIII.

When HENRY VII overthrew RICHARD III and the house of YORK at the Battle of BOSWORTH FIELD in 1485, many descendants of Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, remained alive to challenge the house of TUDOR and its possession of the throne.

With continuance of their dynasty threatened by their own failure to produce healthy male heirs, Henry VII and his sole surviving son and successor Henry VIII executed many persons of Yorkist blood to eliminate any possibility of a Yorkist restoration. The most dangerous plots during Henry VII’s reign centered on impostors, such as Lambert SIMNEL and Perkin WARBECK, who claimed to be, but in fact were not, members of the house of York. The uncertainty over the fate of EDWARD V and his brother Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, the sons of EDWARD IV who disappeared in the TOWER OF LONDON in 1483, made such impostures particularly effective. After 1485, York’s last direct descendent in the male line was the duke’s grandson, Edward PLANTAGENET, earl of Warwick, the son of George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence. One of Henry VII’s first acts as king was to secure the person of Warwick and confine him in the Tower, where he remained until his execution for treason in 1499.

With Warwick imprisoned, the leading Yorkist heirs were the sons of Edward IV’s sister, Elizabeth, and her husband, John de la POLE, duke of Suffolk. The eldest, John de la POLE, earl of Lincoln, involved himself in the Simnel conspiracy and died at the Battle of STOKE in 1487. In 1499, Lincoln’s younger brother, Edmund de la Pole, earl of Suffolk, fled to CALAIS, where he remained for a time with Sir James TYRELL, the governor of one of the Calais fortresses. Suffolk returned to England shortly thereafter and was taken back into favor until 1501, when he and his brother Richard fled to the court of Maximilian I and tried to convince the emperor to fund an attempt on the English throne. Henry arrested a third de la Pole brother, William, and imprisoned him in the Tower, where he stayed until his death in 1539. In 1502, the king also took advantage of Suffolk’s connection with Tyrell to make the rise of any future Yorkist impostors more difficult. Tyrell was an ideal instrument for this purpose; a former servant of Richard III now awaiting execution for his involvement with Suffolk, Tyrell confessed to having murdered the sons of Edward IV in 1483 on Richard’s orders. With his own eldest son, Prince Arthur, having recently died, Henry VII wanted it made clear that the PRINCES IN THE TOWER were dead. Although the confession could be genuine, the circumstances and timing of Tyrell’s revelation cast doubt on the truth of its claims.

Suffolk, meanwhile, was unable to interest a continental monarch in his enterprise and remained safely in the Netherlands until 1506, when Duke Philip of BURGUNDY concluded a treaty with Henry VII that required the duke to cease supporting Henry’s enemies. Suffolk was duly surrendered to the English at Calais and remained in the Tower until 1513 when his brother was recognized as “Richard IV” by Louis XII of FRANCE, an act that prompted Henry VIII to execute Suffolk. Richard de la Pole later served as a soldier in Hungary and in France, and died in 1525 fighting for Francis I at the Battle of Pavia.

In the late 1530s, after the birth of his long awaited male heir, Henry VIII resumed the destruction of the house of York with a series of judicial murders. In 1538, he executed Henry Courtenay, marquis of Exeter, the son of Edward IV’s daughter Katherine, and, in 1541, he eliminated Warwick’s sixty-eight-year-old sister, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury. The Countess’s eldest son, Henry Pole, Lord Montague, had also gone to the block in 1538. By his death in 1547, Henry VIII, himself a grandson of Edward IV, had almost fulfilled his openly avowed intention of extinguishing his Yorkist relatives.

Thursday, February 19, 2015


Henry VI was the youngest ever king of England, succeeding his warrior father Henry V at the age of just nine months. When the little boy attended his first opening of Parliament, aged only three, it was hardly surprising that he ‘shrieked and cried and sprang’, as one report described.

The problem was that in the course of his fifty troubled years, this king never really grew up. Henry VI went from first to second childhood, according to one modern historian, ‘without the usual interval’.

This is unfair. Henry was a kindly and pious man who financed the building of two gems of English architecture — the soaring Perpendicular chapel of Eton College across the Thames from Windsor, and the chapel of King’s College, Cambridge. He also ran a court of some magnificence, to which his naivety brought a charming touch. The ‘Royal Book’ of court etiquette describes Henry and his French wife Margaret of Anjou waking up early one New Year’s morning to receive their presents — then staying in bed to enjoy them.

But Henry showed a disastrous lack of interest in the kingly pursuits of chivalry and war. Faced with the need to command the English army in Normandy at the age of eighteen, three years after he had taken over personal control of government from his father’s old councillors, his response was to send a cousin in his place. Henry felt he had quite enough to do supervising the foundation of Eton College. It was not surprising he developed a reputation for nambypambiness. Riding one day through the Cripplegate in London’s city walls, he was shocked to see a decaying section of a human body impaled on a stake above the archway — and was horrified when informed it was the severed quarter of a man who had been ‘false to the King’s majesty’. ‘Take it away!’ he cried. ‘I will not have any Christian man so cruelly handled for my sake!’

Unfortunately for Henry, respect for human rights simply did not feature in the job description of a medieval king. Toughness was required. In the absence of a police force or army, a ruler depended on his network of nobles to ensure law and order, and if people lost confidence in the power of the Crown, it was to their local lord that they looked. They wore their lord’s livery and badge — and it was these rival badges that would later give the conflicts of this period its famous name.

A memorable scene in Shakespeare’s play Henry VI, Part 1 depicts the nobility of England in a garden selecting roses, red or white, to signify their loyalty to the House of York or the House of Lancaster. It did not happen — Shakespeare invented the episode. ’The Wars of the Roses’, the romantic title we use today for the succession of battles and dynastic changes that took place in England between 1453 and 1487, was also a later invention, coined by the nineteenth-century romantic novelist Sir Walter Scott. The Yorkists may have sported a rose on occasion, but there is no evidence that the Lancastrians ever did — at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, they started fighting each other because they did not recognise their own liveries. To judge from the profusion of badges and banners that were actually borne into battle during these years, men were fighting the wars of the swans, dogs, boars, bears, lions, stars, suns and daisies.

The struggle for power, money and land, however, certainly revolved around York and Lancaster, the two rival houses that developed from the numerous descendants of King Edward III. The Lancastrians traced their loyalties back to John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, while the Yorkists rallied round the descendants of Gaunt’s younger brother Edmund, Duke of York. Shakespeare dated the trouble from the moment that Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke deposed his cousin Richard II. But York and Lancaster would have stuck together under a firm and decisive king — and if Henry V had lived longer he would certainly have passed on a stronger throne. Even the bumbling Henry VI might have avoided trouble if, after years of diminishing mental competence, he had not finally gone mad.

According to one account, in August 1453 the King had ‘a sudden fright’ that sent him into a sort of coma, a sad echo of his grandfather, Charles VI — the French king who had howled like a wolf and imagined he was made of glass. After sixteen months Henry staged a recovery, but his breakdown had been the trigger for civil disorder, and in the confused sequence of intrigue and conflict that followed he was a helpless cipher. In February 1461 he was reported to have spent the second Battle of St Albans laughing and singing manically to himself, with no apparent awareness of the mayhem in full swing around him. It was hardly a surprise when, later that year, he was deposed, to be replaced by the handsome, strapping young Yorkist candidate, Edward IV.

In this change of regime the key figure was the mightiest of England’s over-mighty subjects — Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, who fought under the badge of the Bear and Ragged Staff. With no claim to the throne, but controlling vast estates with the ability to raise armies, the earl has gone down in history as ’Warwick the Kingmaker’. ‘They have two rulers,’ remarked a French observer of the English in these years, ’Warwick, and another whose name I have forgotten.’

When Warwick and Edward IV fell out in the late 1460s, the Kingmaker turned against his protege, chasing him from the country. To replace him, Warwick brought back the deposed Henry VI who had spent the last six years in the Tower: the restored monarch was paraded around London in the spring of 1471. But the confused and shambling king had to be shepherded down Cheapside, his feet tied on to his horse. Never much of a parade-ground figure, he now made a sorry sight, dressed in a decidedly old and drab blue velvet gown that could not fail to prompt scorn —‘as though he had no more to change with’. This moth-eaten display, reported the chronicler John Warkworth, was ‘more like a play than a showing of a prince to win men’s hearts’.

It was the Kingmaker’s last throw — and a losing one. Warwick was unable to beat off the challenge of Edward IV, now returned, who soon defeated and killed the earl in battle, regaining the crown for himself.

As for poor Henry, his fate was sealed. Two weeks later he was found dead in the Tower, and history has pointed the finger at his second-time supplanter, Edward. Henry probably was murdered — but there is a sad plausibility to the official explanation that the twice-reigning King, who inherited two kingdoms and lost them both, passed away out of ‘pure displeasure and melancholy’.


Marriage of Henry V and Catherine of Valois

If The Wars of the Roses were fought by the men, it was the women who eventually sorted out the mess. By the late 1400s the royal family tree had become a crazy spider’s web of possible claimants to the throne, and it took female instinct to tease out the relevant strands from the tangle. The emotions of mothers and wives were to weave new patterns — and eventually they produced a most unlikely solution.

Owain ap Maredudd ap Tydwr was a silver-tongued Welsh gentleman who caught the eye of Henry V’s widow, Catherine of France. He was a servant in her household in the 1420S — probably Clerk of her Wardrobe — and being Welsh, he had no surname. The ‘ap’ in his name meant ‘son of’, so he was Owen, son of Meredith, son of Theodore.

But once he had captured the heart of the widowed Queen, Owen had needed a surname. According to later gossip, Catherine would spy on her energetic Welsh wardrobe clerk as he bathed naked in the Thames, and she decided she liked what she saw.

The court was outraged. An official inquiry was held. But Catherine stuck by her Owen and in 1432 their marriage was officially recognised. ‘Theodore’ became ‘Tudor’, and Owen went through life defiantly proud of the leap in fortune that he owed to love. Thirty years later, in 1461, cornered by his enemies after the Battle of Mortimer’s Cross, he would go to the block with insouciance. ’That head shall lie on the stock,’ he said jauntily, ‘that was wont to lie on Queen Catherine’s lap.’

From the outset, the Tudors confronted the world with attitude. Catherine and Owen had two sons, Edmund and Jasper, who were widely viewed as cuckoos in the royal nest. But the dowager Queen resolutely brought up her Welsh boys with her first-born royal son Henry VI, nine or ten years their senior, and the young King became fond of his boisterous half-brothers. In 1452 he raised them both to the peerage, giving Edmund the earldom of Richmond and making Jasper Earl of Pembroke. The two young Tudors were given precedence over all the earls in England, and Henry, who had produced no children, was rumoured to be considering making Edmund his heir. The new Earl of Richmond was granted a version of the royal arms to wear on his shield.

The Tudors rose still higher in the world a few years later, when Edmund married the twelve-year-old Lady Margaret Beaufort, who had her own claim to the throne. The great-granddaughter of John of Gaunt, she proved to be one of the most remarkable women of her time. Bright-eyed and birdlike, to judge from the portraits still to be seen in the several educational establishments she endowed, she was a woman of learning. She translated into English part of The Imitation of Christ, the early-fifteenth-century manual of contemplations in which the German monk Thomas of Kempen (Thomas a Kempis) taught how serenity comes through the judicious acceptance of life’s problems. ’Trouble often compels a man to search his own heart: it reminds him he is an exile here, and he can put his trust in nothing in this world.’

Diminutive in stature, Lady Margaret was nonetheless strong in both mind and body. She was married, pregnant and widowed before the age of thirteen, when Edmund died of plague. In the care of his brother Jasper, Margaret gave birth to Edmund’s son, Henry, in Jasper’s castle at Pembroke in the bleak and windswept south-west corner of Wales. But some complication of the birth, probably to do with her youth or small frame, meant that she had no more children. For the rest of her life she devoted her energies to her son —‘my only worldly joy’, as she lovingly described him — although circumstances kept them apart.

The young man’s links to the succession through his mother — and less directly through his grandmother, the French queen Catherine — made England a dangerous place for Henry Tudor. He spent most of his upbringing in exile, much of it in the company of his uncle Jasper. At the age of four he was separated from his mother, and he scarcely saw her for twenty years.

But Lady Margaret never abandoned the cause. She would later plot a marriage for her son that would make his claim to the throne unassailable, and she had already arranged a marriage for herself that would turn out to be the Tudor trump card. In 1472 she married Thomas, Lord Stanley, a landowner with large estates in Cheshire, Lancashire and other parts of the north-west. The Stanleys were a wily family whose local empire-building typified the rivalries that made up the disorderly jostlings of these years. Allied to Lady Margaret, the Stanleys would prove crucial partners as her son Henry Tudor jostled for the largest prize of all.


As the highest court of the realm, and the national forum for discussion of important public issues, Parliament became during the WARS OF THE ROSES the instrument whereby major political changes were legitimized and new royal regimes recognized.

Fifteenth-century Parliaments consisted of an upper chamber (the Lords) and a lower chamber (the Commons). The membership of the Lords included both laymen—titled nobles summoned by individual writ (see PEERAGE)— and churchmen—twenty-one bishops and some abbots of large monasteries. The Commons, whose membership by 1485 totaled 296, included two knights from each shire and burgesses who represented LONDON and other incorporated towns. The shire representatives— by law county landholders who were knights or who possessed sufficient land to support a knight’s estate—were elected by male residents of the county who held lands worth at least forty shillings per year. Voting for burgesses was more idiosyncratic, the electorate being defined by a town’s charter, which, in some cases, restricted voting to a small group (see TOWNS ANDTHEWARS OFTHE ROSES).

Fifteenth-century Parliaments were royal instruments of government, summoned and dismissed by the king. The speaker of the Commons, the officer who directed debate and managed business, was almost always a royal councilor and was paid by the Crown after 1461. During the Wars of the Roses, royal governments used their control to ensure that Parliaments confirmed royal titles, such as occurred in 1461 to legitimize the house of YORK, in 1483 to approve RICHARD III’s usurpation (see USURPATION OF 1483), and in 1485 to confirm the right of the house of TUDOR. Victorious regimes also used Parliament to pass bills of ATTAINDER against defeated opponents and to reverse attainders previously passed against supporters. Thus, although the Lancastrians attainted leading Yorkists at the COVENTRY PARLIAMENT in 1459, the first Parliament of EDWARD IV in 1461 reversed many of these attainders and passed new bills against prominent Lancastrians. With each change of political fortune came a new series of attainders and reversals.

To obtain a cooperative Parliament, royal administrations often manipulated borough (i.e., town) elections. Because borough seats comprised almost two-thirds of the Commons, and because town electorates were often small and easily influenced, kings could readily secure the election of royal servants and household officials, even though by law burgesses were to be citizens of the town they represented. For example, in 1478, Edward IV obtained a Parliament that was willing to condemn his brother, George PLANTAGENET, duke of Clarence. Besides some loss of independence, the Wars of the Roses also caused the Commons to lose some legislative initiative. Prior to the 1450s, most bills were initiated by petitions from the Commons, whose main functions were the granting of taxation and the consideration of petitions. Civil war Parliaments saw more bills drafted by the king and his COUNCIL, more attention to royal interests, and greater royal management of business. In general, the wars led to an increase of royal control over Parliament.

Further Reading: Butt, Ronald, A History of Parliament: The Middle Ages (London: Constable, 1989).

Sun in Splendor/Sunburst Badge

Although history has closely identified the house of YORK with the white rose emblem, the favorite personal badge of EDWARD IV was the Sun in Splendor or the bright golden sunburst.

The badge apparently derived from a meteorological phenomenon that appeared in the sky to Edward, then earl of March, before the Battle of MORTIMER’S CROSS in February 1461. On the morning of the battle, which was fought only a month after the death of his father, Richard PLANTAGENET, duke of York, Edward saw three suns shining “in the firmament . . . full clear” (Ross, p. 53). Taking this sight to be an omen of victory, Edward went on to win the first battle fought under his leadership. Edward’s sunburst badge was soon closely associated with the king and his family. It appeared frequently on buildings constructed or refurbished by Edward, such as St. George’s Chapel at Windsor and Tewkesbury Abbey near the site of the 1471 Yorkist victory at the Battle of TEWKESBURY. The emblem also found its way into manuscripts written under Yorkist auspices and onto tapestries or apparel created for the Yorkist COURT.

The streaming sunburst badge also played an important role in the Battle of BARNET in April 1471. As the positions of the two struggling armies shifted on the fog-shrouded field, the men of John de VERE, earl of Oxford, one of the Lancastrian commanders, came up unexpectedly behind some of their own men as they tried to reengage after driving part of the Yorkist army from the fight. Because they were wearing Oxford’s badge of a star with streams, they were mistaken in the mist for Yorkist troops wearing the well-known sunburst badge, the sun with streams, of Edward IV. When Lancastrian ARCHERS opened fire on them, Oxford’s surprised and confused men thought themselves betrayed and fled the field crying “treason!” The incident severely demoralized the Lancastrian line, which soon after broke, allowing Edward’s men to surge forward, killing the fleeing Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, and winning the battle.

Further Reading: Ross, Charles, The Wars of the Roses (New York: Thames and Hudson, 1987).

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Cornelius Plot (1468)

Uncovered in June 1468, the Cornelius plot was a shadowy Lancastrian conspiracy that sought to persuade former supporters of HENRYVI to again become active in his cause.

The plot came to light when EDWARD IV’s agents in Kent arrested a shoemaker named John Cornelius, who was caught carrying letters from Lancastrian exiles in FRANCE to secret Lancastrian sympathizers in England. Cornelius was brought before Edward IV, who committed the courier to the TOWER OF LONDON and authorized the use of torture to extract from the prisoner the names of the intended letter recipients. This authorization reveals how nervous the government was at the time about Lancastrian activities, for the Cornelius case is the only example of officially sanctioned torture in England before the time of Henry VIII.

Before succumbing to his harsh treatment, Cornelius implicated several people, including John Hawkins, a servant of John WENLOCK, Lord Wenlock, a former Lancastrian then serving Edward IV as a trusted diplomat. Hawkins, who in his turn implicated several others, was executed, but any suspicions about Wenlock were suppressed so that he could conduct the king’s sister, MARGARET OF YORK, to BURGUNDY for her wedding to Duke CHARLES. Unhappy with the Burgundian alliance that the marriage cemented, Wenlock later abandoned Edward and supported Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, in securing the restoration of Henry VI.

Several other persons implicated by Cornelius and Hawkins were arrested, including the LONDON merchant Sir Thomas COOK and, most likely, Sir Thomas MALORY, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur, who was specifically exempted from a 1468 pardon along with several other men known to have been involved in the Cornelius enterprise. The first of several Lancastrian plots uncovered in 1468, the Cornelius conspiracy revealed a rising dissatisfaction with Edward IV and his government, which helped sweep the king from his throne in 1470.

Further Reading: Field, P. J.C., The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Cambridge: D. S. Brewer, 1993); Hicks, Michael, “The Case of Sir Thomas Cook, 1468,” in Richard III and His Rivals: Magnates and Their Motives in the Wars of the Roses (London: Hambledon Press, 1991); Ross, Charles, Edward IV (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998).

Sir Thomas Malory, (c. 1416–1471)

The life and career of Sir Thomas Malory, the author of Le Morte d’Arthur (The Death of Arthur), one of the greatest literary works of medieval England, illustrates how the quarrel between the houses of LANCASTER and YORK forced even politically insignificant members of the English GENTRY to choose sides.

Because little is known about the writer of Le Morte d’Arthur, historians have debated which of several fifteenth-century Thomas Malorys was the author. The most likely candidate is Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel, a Warwickshire knight whose sketchily preserved life best fits the few facts definitely known about the Arthurian writer. In the concluding paragraphs of Le Morte d’Arthur, the author stated that the book was completed in the ninth year of EDWARD IV by “Sir Thomas Malory, knight,” and also requested his readers to pray “that God will send me good deliverance” (Malory, p. 750). The writer was thus an imprisoned knight who finished his work between 4 March 1469 and 3 March 1470.

Sir Thomas Malory of Newbold Revel was knighted about 1441, and served in PARLIAMENT in 1445 and again in 1449. Malory’s life in the 1440s was unexceptional, but he spent most of the 1450s in various LONDON jails. His imprisonment was the result of a crime spree that began in January 1450 when Malory reportedly lay in ambush, with armed men, to murder Humphrey STAFFORD, duke of Buckingham. In May and again in August, Malory was charged with rape and extortion. In June 1451, Malory and a band of accomplices were accused of stealing livestock, and, in July, Malory and his confederates threatened a house of Warwickshire monks, an action that led to the issuance of orders for his arrest. On 20 July, while Buckingham and a party of sixty men searched for him, Malory and his accomplices vandalized the duke’s deer park at Caludon.

Because such violent crimes conflict with the chivalric values enunciated in Le Morte d’Arthur, the authorship of the Newbold Revel Malory has been disputed. However, the charges against him may have had more to do with local political rivalries than with outright criminality. Malory’s transgressions, which probably originated in a private quarrel with Buckingham, soon entangled Malory in the national political struggle. After Malory’s capture in July 1451, the Lancastrian government imprisoned him without trial through the mid-1450s. Because the Lancastrians seemed intent on keeping him confined, and because he had shown himself capable of raising and leading large numbers of men, Malory probably attracted the attention of the Yorkists, who in the late 1450s were seeking any possible supporters. In 1457, after being temporarily released on bail through the good offices of the Yorkist lord, William NEVILLE, Lord Fauconberg, Malory likely became an adherent of Richard NEVILLE, earl of Warwick, Fauconberg’s nephew and Buckingham’s chief rival in Warwickshire. In early 1462, Malory used Edward IV’s general pardon to win his release and wipe out all charges against him. In late 1462, Malory participated in Edward’s campaign against the Lancastrian-held castles in northern England.

Although no legal records confirm the statement in Le Morte d’Arthur that he wrote while a prisoner, Malory was one of only fifteen people excluded by name from a general pardon issued by Edward IV in July 1468. This exclusion raises the likelihood that Malory was arrested by the Yorkist government some time in 1468 and remained in confinement until the restoration of HENRY VI in October 1470, over six months after the stated completion of Le Morte d’Arthur. Although the reasons for Malory’s imprisonment are unclear, the probability is that he was somehow involved in a shadowy Lancastrian conspiracy known as the CORNELIUS PLOT, which came to light in June 1468. Many of the men excluded from the pardon with Malory were Lancastrians implicated in the plot. According to his tombstone in Greyfriars Church in London, Malory died on 14 March 1471, only a month before the restoration of Edward IV would likely have again jeopardized his freedom.

Further Reading: Field, P. J.C., The Life and Times of Sir Thomas Malory (Cambridge:D. S. Brewer, 1993); Malory, Sir Thomas, Le Morte d’Arthur, edited by R. M. Lumiansky (London: Collier Macmillan Publishers, 1982).