Richard III and the Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


  In what Croyland refers to as his ‘haughty mind’, Gloucester was already king. He began acting like one, according to Mancini, who says that ‘when Richard felt secure from all those dangers that at first he feared, he took off the mourning clothes that he had worn since his brother’s death and, putting on a purple robe, he then rode through the capital, surrounded by a thousand attendants. He publicly showed himself so as to receive the attention and applause of the people, as yet under the name of Protector; but each day he entertained to dinner at his private dwellings an increasingly large number of men,’ doubtless with a view to winning their support. ‘When he exhibited himself through the streets of the City, he was scarcely watched by anybody, rather did they curse him with a fate worthy of his crimes, since no-one now doubted at what he was aiming.’

  Undaunted at the loss of his early popularity, Gloucester pressed on with his plans. By 17th June he had decided to cancel the Parliament called for 25th June, and on that day issued writs rescinding the official summonses sent to the members and magnates. Lord Chancellor Russell’s draft speech for the state opening of that Parliament, composed at this time, still survives; ironically, after urging unity amongst the opposing factions in government and praising the good qualities in the King, Russell recommended the continuance of Gloucester’s protectorate until Edward V attained his majority, when ‘ripeness of years and personal rule be concurrent together’. He envisaged Edward V having cause ‘to rejoice himself and say, “Uncle, I am glad to have you confirmed in this place, you to be my Protector in all my business”’ with powers encompassing ‘the defence of the realm and the tutele [education] and oversight of the King’s most royal person during his years of tenderness, to be his tutor and protector’. Gloucester, even had he known of Russell’s recommendation, may nevertheless have felt that he lacked sufficient support to push the motion through in Parliament.

  Between 17th and 21st June, Gloucester postponed the coronation indefinitely; on what grounds, we do not know. The Tudor chronicler, Richard Grafton, says a new date was set, 2nd November, but there is no contemporary evidence for this, and the magnates who gathered in London on 25th June, speculating as to when the ceremony would in fact take place, certainly did not know about it. What was more, preparations for a coronation were still going ahead. The accounts of Piers Curteys, Keeper of the Royal Wardrobe, show that Edward V’s coronation robes were ready: a short gown of crimson cloth of gold and black velvet and long gowns of crimson cloth of gold lined with green damask, blue velvet and purple velvet, as well as a doublet of black satin and a bonnet of purple velvet. Dishes had already been prepared for the coronation banquet, and animals slaughtered in readiness. By Saturday, 21st June, London was a-buzz with rumour and speculation.

  Two days earlier the Civic Council in York had called up the troops required by the Protector; Mancini says they numbered 6,000 and were mainly from the estates of both Gloucester and Buckingham. News that a large armed force had been summoned from the North reached London on that Saturday, causing much alarm and concern, especially since there was already a considerable military presence, wearing Gloucester’s livery, in the City. ‘With us is much trouble, and every man doubts other,’ wrote Stallworthe to Stonor that day, mentioning that all Hastings’ men ‘are switching allegiance to the Duke of Buckingham’. The mood of the capital was so tense and hostile that the Lord Mayor, a supporter of the Protector, organised a watch in the interests of keeping the peace.

  Gloucester now, says Mancini, ‘took special opportunity of publicly showing his hand’. Sunday, 22nd June, should have been Edward V’s coronation day. Instead, Londoners attending a sermon at Paul’s Cross in London heard for the first time Edward’s claim to the throne impugned. The preacher was Dr Ralph Shaa, the Mayor’s brother, a Cambridge-educated doctor of theology. Like his brother he supported Gloucester, and the latter saw in him the perfect instrument for making public some astonishing revelations concerning the royal succession. Indeed, both the Shaa brothers had exerted themselves to win over the Londoners to Gloucester’s party, and there were a few cheers for Dr Ralph from several strategically placed retainers of the Protector as he entered the open-air pulpit before the cathedral. There he delivered his sermon, taking as his text a quotation from the Apocrypha: ‘But the multiplying brood of the ungodly shall not thrive, nor take deep rooting from bastard slips, nor lay any fast foundations.’

  Gloucester, avers Mancini, had ‘so corrupted’ Dr Shaa and other ‘preachers of the divine Word that in their sermons’ – that at Paul’s Cross was not the only one of its kind delivered that day – ‘they did not blush to say, in the face of decency and all religion, that the progeny of King Edward should be instantly eradicated, for neither had he been a legitimate king, nor could his issue be so. Edward IV, said they, was conceived in adultery, and in every way was unlike the late Duke of York; but Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who altogether resembled his father, was to come to the throne as the legitimate successor.’ At this point Gloucester was meant to appear with Buckingham and other lords in a nearby gallery but he mis-timed his entrance and the dramatic gesture fell flat. Dr Shaa resolutely continued, ignoring his silent audience, praising the Duke’s virtues and stressing that by character and descent he was legally entitled to the throne. But his speech, and those of other preachers in London, met with scant approval from the citizens, whose initial liking for Gloucester had dissolved in the wake of Hastings’ execution, the cancelled coronation – which boded no good – and what they viewed as an armed threat from the North. Dr Shaa, they felt, was little better than a traitor. Indeed, his sermon wrecked his good reputation as a preacher, and his death in 1484 was attributed by the London Chronicles and More to shame and remorse.

  Nevertheless, both he and other preachers had called for the disinheriting of Edward IV’s children on the grounds of that King’s alleged bastardy. In making this allegation, Gloucester was well aware that he was defaming the venerable reputation of his aged mother the Duchess of York, who had become a Benedictine nun in 1480 and lived in pious retirement at Berkhamsted Castle. To make matters worse, the Duchess had just arrived in London for her grandson’s coronation.

  Allegations of bastardy were common propaganda tools in the fifteenth century. This was not the first time they had been levelled at Edward IV. Mancini’s tale that the Duchess, angry in 1464 at her son’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydville, had offered to declare him a bastard, dates from 1483 and probably reflects rumours current at that time: it is not supported by contemporary evidence. Both Warwick and Clarence had called Edward IV a bastard for their own political purposes, but without substantiating their claims by evidence. No-one, in 1483, believed the allegations of Dr Shaa and others, but this was scant comfort to the Duchess who, according to Vergil, ‘being falsely accused of adultery, complained afterwards in sundry places to right many noble men, whereof some yet live, of that great injury which her son Richard had done her’. It may be that her complaints carried some weight, for the allegations were suddenly dropped and not followed through. We know very little of Gloucester’s subsequent relations with his mother; only one letter from him survives, expressing conventional filial devotion. But there is no escaping the fact that he had, to further his own ambitions, publicly insulted and slandered her, an appallingly unfilial act; and in 1484, when the Act ‘Titulus Regius’ was passed, setting out Richard’s title to the throne, he insisted on the allegations of bastardy being indirectly levelled again, having himself described as ‘the undoubted son’ of York.

  It was obvious in June 1483, however, that this particular horse was not going to run, and necessary therefore that Edward V’s unfitness to wear a crown be established by other means. Shortly after the fiasco of Shaa’s sermon, Gloucester had it put about that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydville was invalid because he had at the time been contracted to another lady, and that their children were bastards and incapable of inheriting the throne. It was this that was the eventual
basis of Gloucester’s claim to sovereignty.

  Although the supposed facts of this matter were recorded in 1484 in the Act ‘Titulus Regius’, the fullest contemporary account of the ‘precontract story’ was written by Philippe de Commines more than ten years later. According to this, Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, had presented himself before the Council on 8th June and disclosed some astonishing information. He ‘discovered to the Duke of Gloucester that his brother King Edward had been formerly very enamoured of a certain English lady and had promised her marriage upon the condition he might lie with her. The lady consented and, as the Bishop affirmed, he married them when nobody was present but they two and himself. His fortune depending on the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained a secret.’ Commines says the Bishop produced ‘instruments, authentic doctors, proctors and notaries of the law with depositions of divers witnesses’ to prove his story.

  The lady in question was a gentlewoman called Lady Eleanor Butler. Lady Eleanor, whose name first appears linked to Edward IV’s in ‘Titulus Regius’, was described in that Act as the daughter of John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury (1388?–1453), although Commines casts doubt on this; an unidentified Sir John Talbot is described in other sources as Eleanor’s brother. Her date of birth is recorded as 1435, but this cannot be verified. Around 1449–50 she married Sir Thomas Butler (or Boteler), the son and heir of Ralph, Lord Sudeley, and went to live at Sudeley Castle near Winchcombe, Gloucestershire. Sir Thomas died in 1460–61, leaving Eleanor a childless widow with a legal dispute on her hands. Lord Sudeley had transferred two manors in Warwickshire to his son on his marriage, but had failed to obtain the King’s licence to do so beforehand; as a result these manors were confiscated. Shortly after being widowed Eleanor is said to have petitioned Edward IV for their restoration, which was granted her in 1461. This is the only contemporary record of any dealings between her and the King, and if a precontract ever existed between them then it would have dated from the period between Eleanor’s widowhood in 1461 and Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Wydville in 1464.

  Lady Eleanor died shortly before 30th June, 1468, the day on which she was buried in the conventual church of the Carmelites in Norwich. Buck states that she had retired there shortly after giving birth to a child by the King, but there is no contemporary evidence for this. The child, said to have been known at first as Giles Gurney and later on as Edward de Wigmore, was supposed to have been the great-grandfather of Richard Wigmore, secretary to Elizabeth I’s chief minister, Lord Burleigh. Buck also says that Lady Eleanor’s family persuaded Stillington to go to Gloucester with the truth.

  But was it the truth? The answer to that question is crucial, and for centuries writers have argued the pros and cons of the matter, and still cannot reach agreement. The overwhelming consideration must be that public acceptance of the invalidity of Edward V’s claim to the throne was highly advantageous to Gloucester, who had everything to gain from it. Furthermore, these revelations of Stillington’s, if they were made at all, were made at a most convenient time. Indeed, as several writers have pointed out, their very timeliness undermines their credibility. And if we examine the facts of the story, several flaws immediately become apparent.

  Commines was the only contemporary writer to state that the precontract story came from Stillington; English writers do not mention him. The Bishop’s allegations are unsubstantiated by any other evidence or source, and none of the proofs he allegedly produced are referred to elsewhere. Commines believed that ‘this bad, wicked bishop’ had ‘kept thoughts of revenge in his heart’ because Edward IV had had him imprisoned in 1478, and that this had prompted him to take his story before the Council; he had fallen from favour and hoped to regain it when a grateful Protector became king. Stillington’s imprisonment was brief, however, and he had regained some of his former influence. Moreover, Gloucester at no time in the future showed him any mark of favour nor rewarded him as he did his other supporters.

  There is no record of Stillington appearing before the Council on 8th June or any other date, nor is there any evidence for him being examined in connection with his allegations. On 9th June Stallworthe, referring to the Council’s meeting on that day, had nothing to report, which would hardly have been the case if such sensational revelations had been produced the day before.

  A precontract, in that period, was a promise before witnesses to marry followed by sexual intercourse. Many couples lived together on the strength of this and did not have their unions blessed in church. A precontract was as binding as a marriage and could only be dissolved by the ecclesiastical authorities. By 1330the law recognised that an existing precontract with one partner was a bar to marriage with another and sufficient to bastardise any children of a subsequent marriage. Edward IV is said to have promised marriage to Lady Eleanor in return for sex, which may well have constituted a valid precontract. Stillington is then supposed to have married them without any witnesses being present, which is inconceivable considering his reputation as a canon lawyer and theologian. A marriage without witnesses was automatically invalid, and therefore – taking the story at face value – the King could only be said to be precontracted to the lady, not married to her. It is also inconceivable that neither Stillington nor Lady Eleanor disclosed the matter when Edward IV married Elizabeth Wydville, given that both would have known the royal marriage to be bigamous and invalid, and the succession at stake. At the time the marriage was unpopular and created a furore as it was, and the Bishop at least would not have lacked supporters had he spoken out. Lady Eleanor’s pedigree was no poorer than Elizabeth Wydville’s, so the disclosure of her precontract could hardly have made matters worse.

  Nevertheless the precontract story was well-conceived and plausible, giving Edward IV’s reputation with women and the notorious circumstances of his marriage to Elizabeth Wydville, though no proof to substantiate it was forthcoming at the time, nor has been since. Edward IV had lived with his wife for nineteen years, united in the eyes of Church and State, and no-one had ever suggested in the slightest way that their marriage was invalid because of a previous precontract. In the normal way, Gloucester should have had the allegations laid before a properly constituted ecclesiastical court, which would conduct a searching investigation into the validity of the late King’s marriage in order to prove beyond any doubt that it was unlawful and its issue illegitimate. Only then could the children of the marriage be legally declared bastards and unfit to inherit, and that by Parliament itself, which had the power to rule on questions affecting inheritance. But Gloucester, probably realising that his allegations would never stand up in an ecclesiastical court, did not submit them for examination, a most telling omission that is evidence enough that he had insufficient proof to support them.

  No contemporary writer believed the precontract story. The well-informed Croyland, the only contemporary chronicler to give an accurate account of it, knowing how crucial it was, dismissed the tale as false, calling it ‘the colour for this act of usurpation’. Mancini did not believe the tale either.

  It appears, then, that there is no truth in the precontract story and Commines’ account of Stillington’s role in it. ‘That fable,’ wrote Bacon, ‘was ever exploded.’ What is likely is that it was invented by Gloucester to suit his own ambitions and justify what he was about to do with or without the connivance of others, as soon as he realised that the public would not accept the allegations of Edward IV’s bastardy as the pretext for his claiming the throne.

  Nevertheless, in our own time there are still writers who insist that there had been a precontract, that Stillington had confided as much to Clarence, and that Edward IV had Clarence executed to silence him. Clarence, of course, had much to gain from the possession of such information: he was next in line to the throne. It is strange, therefore, that Clarence, who was always so ready to slander his brother, never made use of what he allegedly knew, and stranger still th
at Gloucester, who was at court at the time and in the King’s confidence, never learned of the allegations, or, if he did, never made use of them until June, 1483. There is no evidence at all that Stillington told Clarence of a precontract, and no reason to believe that Clarence’s removal was due to anything other than the specific, blatant crimes with which he was charged. Nor is it conceivable that Edward IV would have released Stillington from prison after Clarence’s death, knowing he was the possessor of such dangerous knowledge.

  While London seethed with gossip, at Sheriff Hutton Castle on 23rd June, Anthony Wydville, Earl Rivers, was informed that he was to be taken to Pontefract Castle on the morrow to be executed. Before leaving, he made his will, and the following day was taken under guard – as were Grey and Haute – to Pontefract, where Vaughan was held; there, all four were told they were to die the next day. That night, says Rous, Rivers ‘wrote a ballad in English’, in which he said he was ‘willing to die’.

  On that same day in London, Buckingham went to the Guildhall to address the Mayor, aldermen and chief citizens on behalf of Gloucester, who did not appear. The Duke spoke for half an hour, deploying all his considerable powers of eloquence and persuasion, so that all who heard him marvelled. The gist of his speech was recorded by all the London chroniclers, Vergil, and More, whose father, being a London judge, was probably present in the Guildhall that day. Buckingham’s main objective was to persuade the people that Gloucester was their rightful king. He said he would not venture to go further into the matter of the bastardy of Gloucester’s brothers since the Protector bore ‘a filial reverence for the Duchess his mother’, and enlarged instead upon the precontract story. Gloucester, he said, was reluctant to accept the crown for he knew ‘it was no child’s office’, but he might do so if the citizens pressed him to it. The Duke ended by appealing to them to do so.

 
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