Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir

  The Council met on 9th June, but no record of its proceedings survives. Stallworthe, on that day, wrote that he had nothing to report apart from plans for the coronation. What happened next remains a mystery. Shortly before 9th June, Gloucester, says Mancini, had ‘sounded out [Hastings’] loyalty through the Duke of Buckingham’. The Protector was anxious to learn how Hastings would respond to the suggestion that he, Gloucester, was the rightful King of England. Hastings, staunchly loyal to the memory of Edward IV and to his son, declared that he would accept Gloucester as protector but not as king. More says that Catesby also canvassed Hastings on Gloucester’s behalf, but Hastings responded ‘with terrible words’, which were reported back to Gloucester.

  Hastings was much alarmed by the realisation that Gloucester was indeed contemplating usurping the throne. The speculation, he now knew, had not been unfounded. Vergil states that Hastings had regretted his support of Gloucester from the day the latter had demanded the death penalty for Rivers. Then he had seen Buckingham usurp his rightful place in the Protector’s counsels. Now he faced the prospect of Gloucester overthrowing Edward IV’s son, the rightful King, and found it intolerable. Worse still was the knowledge that the powerful Buckingham would lend the would-be usurper his support, as would Lord Howard.

  There were several people to whom Hastings could have confided his fears about what he had discovered. Chief among them was Edward V himself, whom Hastings saw regularly at the Tower: indeed, it may have been at this time that Edward gave Hastings an exquisite illuminated manuscript known as The Hastings Hours, now in the British Library. Hastings may have warned the King what was afoot, and Edward may have responded by urging him to do all in his power to have Gloucester dislodged from his office. Almost certainly, however, Hastings sought help and advice from fellow-councillors such as Rotherham, Stanley and Morton. Vergil says that at a meeting of his friends, probably at a private house, he discussed the possibility of seizing the King by force and even, perhaps, of deposing Gloucester from his protectorship. There was also talk of removing Buckingham from the Council. However, all these things were dismissed as being too fraught with dangers, and the meeting ended with Hastings and his friends deciding to see what transpired before taking any action, on the premise that forewarned is forearmed.

  Hastings may even, in his agitation, have approached the Queen. She was the one person who should be informed if her son was in any danger. Hastings is said to have sent her a message by his mistress, Elizabeth Shore, a strange choice in the circumstances, but probably safer than visiting Westminster Abbey himself.

  Then, probably on 9th June, Gloucester found out what was going on, probably through Catesby, who was in Hastings’ confidence. In his anger, the Protector now chose to behave as if Hastings’ activities and the meetings of councillors in each other’s houses were evidence of a serious conspiracy against him, but Croyland, who was in a position to know the truth, states categorically that Hastings was not guilty of conspiring against Gloucester, a statement that is supported by Hastings’ naivety regarding the split in the Council and Catesby’s loyalty to himself. Nevertheless, evidence exists to show that some people did believe that a plot had been brewing. A fragment from the commonplace book of a London merchant, dating from 1483 and discovered in 1980 in the College of Arms, states that ‘divers imagined the death of the Duke of Gloucester and it was espied’. The fragment goes on to connect this with Hastings. Vergil also states that a countercoup was being planned in June. Then there are Gloucester’s own allegations, which appear below, accusing Hastings of conspiring with the Queen and her party to destroy him. We may dismiss the first two sources on the grounds that they are probably based on the propaganda later put about by the Protector.

  Gloucester’s allegations were probably a gross exaggeration of the truth, devised to justify the removal of a man who stood firmly in the way of his ambitions, for there is no other contemporary evidence of a conspiracy. The Wydvilles had been neutralised: the Queen, Dorset and Bishop Lionel were in sanctuary, Sir Edward had fled to Brittany, and Rivers and Grey were in prison. Hastings could have expected no help from that quarter. Nor did Gloucester take any proceedings against the Wydvilles at that time. More believed that Gloucester invented the ‘conspiracy’, because Elizabeth Wydville was ‘too wise to go about any such folly, and if she would, yet would she of all folk least make Shore’s wife of counsel, whom of all women she most hated’. What is likely is that Gloucester made Hastings’ consultations with the councillors and perhaps his message to the Queen an excuse for accusing him and others of conspiracy, to suit his own purpose.

  Gloucester was in no doubt that the wealthy and influential Hastings could prove a dangerous enemy whose loyalty to Edward V would ruin his carefully laid plans. Mancini says he ‘considered that his prospects were not sufficiently secure without the removal or imprisonment of those who had been the closest friends of his brother and were expected to be loyal to his brother’s offspring. In this class he thought to include Hastings, Rotherham and John Morton, the Bishop of Ely. Therefore the Protector rushed headlong into crime, for fear that the ability and authority of these men might be detrimental to him.’ More states that Gloucester decided to eliminate Hastings because he was opposed to all his schemes, and a contemporary Welsh chronicler, Humphrey Lluyd, says that it was ‘because [Hastings] would not freely have this man crowned’.

  There is no doubt that Gloucester acted precipitately to deal with the problem of Hastings as soon as he learned he would not have his support; he had no time to waste. Vergil states that during the days prior to 13th June, when he was planning to act against Hastings, Gloucester suffered deep bodily feebleness and was unable to rest, eat or drink – surely signs of anger, tension and anxiety.

  On 10th June Gloucester wrote to the Civic Council of York:

  As ye love the weal of us, and the weal and surety of your own selves, we heartily pray you to come unto us in London, in all the diligence ye can possible after the sight hereof, with as many as ye can defensibly arrayed, there to aid and assist us against the Queen, her blood adherents and affinity, which have intended, and daily doth intend, to murder and utterly destroy us and our cousin the Duke of Buckingham and the old royal blood of this realm, and as is now openly known, by their subtle and demeanable ways forecasted the same and also the final destruction and disinheriting of you and all other inheritors and men of honour, as well of the north parts as other countries, that belongs to us; as our trusty servant, this bearer, shall more at large show to you, to whom we pray you give credence, and as ever we may do for you in time coming, fail not, but haste you to us hither.

  Gloucester’s real motive in summoning troops from York was the intimidation of possible opposition to his intended seizure of the throne. The concocted tale of a Wydville conspiracy was just an excuse to raise an army, and one he knew the citizens of York would respond to. Once again, he was presenting himself as the champion of the people. However, if a coup against him was as imminent as he made out, armed help from the North would not have reached him in time. Vergil believed that the troops were summoned primarily to prevent riots among the populace when ‘they should see the crown bereft from Prince Edward’.

  On 11th June Gloucester wrote further letters appealing for aid to the Earl of Northumberland, Lord Neville and other northern magnates. On that day or the next he despatched Richard Ratcliffe, who had been ‘instructed with all my mind and intent’, to the North with all the letters. Ratcliffe also carried warrants to be forwarded to Sheriff Hutton for the executions of Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute, drawn up by Gloucester in defiance of the Council. Wrote Mancini: ‘So as to leave no source of danger to himself from any quarter, when by means of the Council the Duke could not compass the execution of Lord Rivers and Richard [Grey], he ordered dependable officers to put them to death.’ Such an action was unlawful and tyrannical, but to Gloucester it was politically vital for his future security and the guaranteed success of his bid for
the throne. It was nevertheless an outrageous thing to order the execution of the King’s uncle and relations, and the fact that Gloucester did it shows that he already regarded Edward V as a political nonentity whose favour he no longer needed to court. Only a man intent on seizing the throne would dare to take such a step.

  On 12th June, says Croyland, ‘the Protector, with extraordinary cunning, divided the Council’, summoning Buckingham, Hastings, Morton, Stanley, Rotherham, Lord Howard and his son Sir Thomas Howard to a council meeting to be held in the Tower the following morning. The other councillors met on 13th June at Westminster, with orders from Gloucester to finalise plans for the coronation. This second gathering was presided over by Lord Chancellor Russell.

  John Morton, Bishop of Ely, was leader of the court clerical party. He was a cultivated and learned man and a great canon lawyer, who had loyally served both Henry VI and Edward IV. Mancini calls him a man ‘of great resource and caring, for he had been trained in party intrigue since King Henry’s time, and enjoyed great influence’. More says that Morton would have been glad that Edward IV’s son had succeeded him, for the Bishop, like several of those councillors summoned by the Protector to meet at the Tower on 13th June, had made it clear from the first that his allegiance lay with Edward V.

  The fullest account of what occurred in the Tower that day comes from More, who almost certainly obtained some of his information from Morton, Rotherham and Thomas Howard, all eyewitnesses with whom he was at one time or other acquainted. We can deduce this because More gives details with a ring of authenticity that are not quoted anywhere else. Vergil also gives a comprehensive account, and internal evidence suggests that some of it came from those who had known Lord Stanley, another eyewitness.

  The Council met in the morning in what Mancini calls ‘the innermost quarters’ of the White Tower, the King being then in the royal apartments. More states that Hastings was escorted to the Tower by ‘a mean knight’ whom Hall later identified as Sir Thomas Howard. More’s failure to name Howard suggests that the information had come from Howard sources on condition that names be suppressed. Nor did More wish to offend his powerful friend the Duke of Norfolk, Howard’s son. Later editions of More’s work, published when the Howards had fallen from favour, were not so reticent. It appears that Howard was detailed by Gloucester to ensure that Hastings turned up at the council meeting. Hastings, says Croyland, having openly exulted in Gloucester’s successful coup against the Wydvilles, was about to have ‘this extreme joy of his supplanted by sorrow’.

  Shortly before 9.00 am, the councillors were all seated, waiting, says Mancini, ‘to salute the Protector, as was their custom’, and believing they had been summoned to discuss the coronation. At 9.00 Gloucester entered, the embodiment of smiling amiability, an act put on, says More, to lull his victims into a sense of false security. The Duke cordially asked Morton to arrange for some strawberries to be sent to him from the Bishop’s gardens at Ely Place in Holborn, which Morton hastened to do. Then, leaving the councillors to discuss routine business, Gloucester left the room.

  He had laid his plans carefully and, says Humphrey Lluyd, ‘maliciously’. No-one would have expected him to employ violence in the council chamber, and the element of surprise would only be to his advantage.

  After one and a half hours the Protector returned, says More, ‘frowning, fretting and gnawing on his lips’. He sat silent for a while, glowering, then asked Hastings, ‘What do men deserve for having plotted the destruction of me, being so near of blood unto the King, and Protector of his royal person and realm?’ Hastings, astonished, replied, ‘Certainly, if they have done so heinously, they are worthy of a heinous punishment.’ At this, Gloucester rose to his feet and snarled, ‘What? Dost thou serve me with “ifs” and “ands”? I tell thee, they have done it, and that I will make good upon thy body, traitor!’

  More states that Gloucester went on to accuse Hastings, Morton, Rotherham, Stanley and Oliver King, a former secretary of Edward IV, of plotting with the Queen and Elizabeth Shore against his authority and his life. Crimes against the Protector were not in fact treason, since he was not the sovereign, but Gloucester was not concerned with such niceties. More says the Duke also alleged that ‘yonder witch’, Elizabeth Wydville, in conjunction with Mistress Shore, ‘had by their sorceries withered his arm’. As we have seen, there is no contemporary evidence that Gloucester had a withered arm. He had, however, been suffering from a bodily weakness for a few days, and probably based his accusation on this. By More’s time the story had doubtless become heavily embroidered.

  Mancini heard that what happened next was that Gloucester, ‘as prearranged, cried out that an ambush had been prepared for him, and they [the councillors] had come with hidden arms, that they might be first to open the attack’. Whatever the exact nature of Gloucester’s accusation, Hastings and the rest were given no chance to reply. Several accounts state that the Protector had secretly placed armed men either in an adjoining room or behind the arras in the council chamber. Mancini says they were under the command of Buckingham, but Vergil says that Sir Thomas Howard shared the command with two Yorkshiremen, Robert Harrington and Charles Pilkington. When Gloucester, concluding his tirade, banged on the table, the armed guard cried ‘Treason!’ and rushed into the room. A violent scuffle ensued which resulted in the arrests of Hastings, Stanley, Rotherham, Morton and one John Forster, a follower of Hastings and former receiver-general to the Queen. Stanley was wounded in the fracas and had blood streaming from his head. Hastings, says Mancini, was ‘cut down on the false pretext of treason’: he mistakenly thought that Hastings had been killed there and then by the soldiers. Then Gloucester told Hastings that he had better see a priest at once and confess his sins, ‘for, by St Paul, I will not to dinner till I see thy head off!’ Dinner was usually served around 11.00 am or slightly later: Hastings knew he faced imminent death.

  All sources agree that Hastings was executed within minutes of his arrest, ‘suddenly without judgement’. Magna Carta provided for magnates of the realm to be tried by their peers in Parliament, which was due to meet in less than a fortnight. But Gloucester could not afford to wait that long, and dared not risk an open trial since Hastings knew too much about his plot to seize the throne. The Great Chronicle states that the execution was done ‘without any process of law or lawful examination’. It was a blatantly tyrannical act that heralded a new phase in the protectorate, that of rule by terror.

  Gloucester put Buckingham in charge of the execution, who paid no heed to Hastings’ pleas for mercy and protestations of innocence. A priest was summoned but, says More, no time was allowed for ‘any long confession or other space of remembrance’. Then an usher led, or rather dragged, Hastings ‘forth unto the green beside the chapel within the Tower, and there, on a squared piece of timber, strake off his head’. The timber, says Fabyan, ‘lay there with other for the repairing of the said Tower’. Humphrey Lluyd states that Hastings ‘was slain by sword’, which is likely in the circumstances. It is even possible that Edward V witnessed the execution, for the west windows of the royal apartments faced Tower Green and the noise and commotion must have attracted attention. Hastings’ broken body was buried soon afterwards, as he had requested in his will of 1481, near Edward IV in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, where his chantry may be seen today.

  ‘Thus fell Hastings,’ wrote Mancini, ‘killed not by those enemies he had always feared, but by a friend whom he had never doubted. But whom will insane lust for power spare, if it dares violate the ties of kin and friendship?’ Mancini’s observations support the circumstantial evidence that Hastings turned against Gloucester only days before his execution. Croyland commented that innocent blood had been shed, ‘and in this way, without justice or judgement, the three strongest supporters of the new King were removed’. He was referring also to Rivers and Grey, imprisoned and condemned without trial. Hastings’ contemporaries were in no doubt that his execution was a foretaste of violence to come. It proved
just how ruthless Gloucester could be. At a stroke, on one day, four of his chief opponents had been silenced: one had been openly murdered. When the news of this atrocity broke it sent shock waves of horror throughout the City and the kingdom.

  Vergil says that as soon as Hastings was dead Gloucester sent his men running through the streets of the City crying ‘Treason! Treason!’ The Londoners, hearing them, ‘began to cry out likewise’, becoming, says Mancini, ‘panic stricken; and each one seized his weapons’. When the reason for the uproar was disclosed, the citizens were shocked and saddened, for Hastings was popular with them for his liberality and his charitable works. Vergil says ‘those who favoured King Edward’s children [and] had reposed their whole hope and confidence in him generally lamented’ his death. Most people felt alarmed by it, for until now there had been no indication that anything was amiss in the government, and the Great Chronicle records how Hastings’ death convinced the Londoners that Gloucester was scheming to seize the throne. In the troubled City wild rumours spread, and a wool merchant, George Cely, scribbled brief notes about what he was hearing on a spare piece of paper that still survives today: ‘There is great rumour in the realm. The Scots has done great in England. Chamberlain [Hastings] is deceased in trouble. The Chancellor is disproved and not content. The Bishop of Ely is dead. If the King, God save his life, were deceased; the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril. If my lord Prince, which God defend, were troubled; if my Lord Howard were slain.’ Most of these rumours were, of course, unfounded. The King was still at the Tower and would be seen there after this date.

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