The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir


  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 1330 the 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

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  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.

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  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 that 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,

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  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.

  There was a deathly silence. It was obvious that very few believed there had ever been a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, much less that Gloucester was the rightful king. A few, at length, murmured their approval, but this was mainly due to fear of reprisals from Gloucester rather than loyalty to him or conviction, whereupon Buckingham's men attempted to redeem the situation by throwing their caps into the air and shouting 'King Richard!' But the execution of Hastings had alienated many of Gloucester's former supporters and it was becoming obvious that he was not going to be swept on to the throne on a tide of public opinion.

  Nor would the public's confidence have been restored by knowledge of what occurred on the following day, 25th June, at Pontefract. Evidence in York Civic Records shows that Sir Richard Ratcliffe had arrived at the castle with the troops from York a day or so previously and conveyed the Protector's order for the executions of the four prisoners to the Earl of Northumberland, who was awaiting him there with an army of his own. Rous says that 'the said lords were condemned to death by the Earl on the false charge that they had in fact plotted the death of Richard, Duke of Gloucester and, for a thing they had never contemplated, the innocent humbly and peaceably submitted to a cruel fate.' Croyland confirms that the executions took place 'by command of Richard Ratcliffe, and without any form of trial being observed'. Rous, in a later passage, describes Northumberland as the men's 'chief judge', implying that some sort of formal condemnation had taken place, but Rous was a less reliable commentator than Croyland, and Rivers had been informed of his imminent death two days previously at Sheriff Hutton. As a nobleman he had the right to be tried by his peers in Parliament, but this had been denied him, as it had been denied Hastings.

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  Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute were beheaded in the presence of Northumberland, Ratcliffe -- who supervised the proceedings -- the assembled northern forces, and some of the public. None of the men were allowed to make a speech. Rous says that afterwards, when the bodies were stripped for burial, Rivers was found to be wearing a 'consecrated hair shirt' which was long after displayed in the church of the Carmelite friars in
Doncaster. Rivers, Grey and Haute were buried naked in a common grave in a monastery at Pontefract, while Vaughan, whom Croyland calls 'an aged knight', was eventually laid to rest in Westminster Abbey under a Latin epitaph which translates as 'To love and wait upon', an allusion to his devoted service to Edward V.

  All contemporary writers agree that Rivers and his associates had committed no crime. No evidence against them was ever produced. Rous says they 'were unjustly and cruelly put to death, being lamented by everyone, and innocent of the deed for which they were charged'. More states that their only fault was in being 'good men, too true to the King', and Vergil avers that their true offence was to stand in the way of Gloucester's ambitions. Croyland observes that this was the 'second innocent blood which was shed on the occasion of this sudden change'. In all, their executions constituted yet more blatant acts of tyranny committed by Gloucester.

  By now a great number of lords and commoners had arrived in London for the coronation, and on 25th June all were summoned to Westminster. Mancini says they 'supposed they were called both to hear the reason for Hastings' execution and to decide again upon the coronation of Edward, for it seemed after such an unprecedented alarm that the coronation must be deferred. When the Duke [of Gloucester] saw that all was ready, as though he knew nothing of the affair, he secretly despatched the Duke of Buckingham to the lords with orders to submit to their decision the disposal of the throne.' Buckingham brought with him, says Croyland, 'a supplication' or petition, 'in an address in a certain roll of parchment', which was to be approved by the assembly before being laid before Gloucester. This petition had almost certainly been drawn up by Gloucester and Buckingham. Some historians infer that the magnates were its authors, but while it was written in their name, this is implausible. The only magnates involved were likely to have been the two Dukes and perhaps Lord Howard:

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  Rous says Gloucester 'feigned a title to the crown for his own advancement', and Croyland relates 'how it was at the time rumoured that this address had been got up in the north, whence such vast numbers were flocking to London, although at the same time there was not a person but what very well knew who was the sole mover at London of such seditious and disgraceful proceedings'.

  This petition no longer survives but its text was incorporated, seemingly word for word, into the Act of Settlement called 'Titulus Regius', passed in 1484, which set forth Gloucester's title to the throne, and its gist was recorded by several contemporary writers. It was couched in lofty, indignant, moral tones, typical of the propaganda used before it and later on by Gloucester, and its purpose was not only to justify the deposition of the lawful sovereign, but to present the Duke to the people as he saw himself, an upright and strong ruler who could offer stable government in place of the uncertainties of a minority.

  Buckingham's address opened with an attack on the government of Edward IV, who had let himself be ruled by the Wydvilles. This time there were no allegations that Edward IV had been illegitimate. Instead, says Croyland, 'it was set forth that the sons of King Edward were bastards, on the ground that he had contracted a marriage with the Lady Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Queen Elizabeth'. In fact the petition, and the subsequent Act, asserted that the King's marriage to Elizabeth Wydville was invalid on three counts: firstly, because it had been made without the assent of the lords of the land and as a result of sorcery practised by Elizabeth and her mother (no evidence was produced to substantiate these allegations); secondly, because it had been 'made privily and secretly, without edition of banns, in private chamber, a profane place, and not openly in the face of the Church, after the law of God's Church, but contrary to the laudable custom of the Church of England'; and thirdly, because 'at the time of contract of the said pretenced marriage, and before and long time after, King Edward was married and troth-plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler. Which premises being true, as in very truth they been true, it appeareth and followeth evidently that King Edward and Elizabeth lived together sinfully and damnably in adultery against the laws of God and His Church, and all the issues and children of the said King Edward been bastards and unable to claim anything by inheritance, by the law and

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  custom of England.'

  According to the petition, next in line after Edward IV would have been Clarence's son, the young Earl of Warwick, but for Clarence's attainder, which, says Mancini, rendered Warwick 'ineligible for the crown, since his father, after conviction for treason, had forfeited not only his own but his son's right of succession'. This was not strictly correct. Gloucester was well aware that Warwick had a strong claim to the throne, better than his own. However, there was little danger of anyone claiming it on his behalf at present because Warwick was only eight. As time went by he would pose a greater threat. Attainders were reversible: over 80 per cent of the attainders passed during the period 145 3-1509 were later reversed. Henry IV, Henry VI and Edward IV had all succeeded to the throne after being previously attainted. And Clarence's attainder deprived his children of inheriting only 'the honours, estate, dignity and name of duke'; it did not exclude them from the succession. However, as far as Gloucester was concerned, the time for legal niceties was long past.

  Warwick's exclusion meant, concluded Buckingham, according to Croyland, that 'at the present time no certain and incorrupt blood of the lineage of Richard, Duke of York was to be found, except in the person of Richard, Duke of Gloucester', his undoubted son and heir, who had been born in England, unlike Edward IV, who had been born in France. Mancini quotes Buckingham as saying that Gloucester was 'legally entitled to the crown and could bear its responsibility, thanks to his proficiency. His previous career and blameless morals would be a sure guarantee of his good government.' He spoke of Gloucester's 'great wit, prudence, justice, princely courage and memorable and laudable acts, and also the great noblesse and excellence of [his] birth and blood'. 'For which reasons,' says Croyland, 'he was entreated at the end of the said roll to assume his lawful rights' and asked if he would accept and take upon himself the crown and royal dignity.

  Mancini says that, according to Buckingham, there was a problem over this, for it was likely that Gloucester 'would refuse such a burden'. He might, however, 'change his mind if he were asked by the peers'. Buckingham then left the assembled lords and commons to examine Gloucester's claim. Many certainly had reservations about it, and it would become clear in time to come that few Englishmen ever found the allegations on which it was based plausible. Nor had any proofs

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  been offered to substantiate them. Croyland, who was on the Council, believed them to be fraudulent; he was not alone. But the lords, says Mancini, 'consulted their own safety, warned by the example of Hastings and perceiving the alliance of the two Dukes, whose power, supported by a multitude of troops, would be difficult and hazardous to resist; and therefore they determined to declare Richard their king and ask him to undertake the burden of office'. They were 'seduced', states Vergil, 'rather for fear than hope of benefit'. In fact, their decision was unanimous, dictated by the desire for self-preservation, realisation that every minority brought with it more problems than were desirable in an unstable political climate, especially now when the young King's title had been publicly impugned, and the knowledge that Gloucester was certainly capable of providing strong government.

  The assembly that convened on 25th June was undoubtedly constitutional, even though it did not meet in Parliament, but it now went beyond the law and declared Edward IV's marriage to Elizabeth Wydville invalid and their children illegitimate, then agreed that Edward V had been formally deposed. In fact, he and his siblings were not formally disinherited until 'Titulus Regius' was passed in 1484, and therefore his deposition on 25th June, 1483, was illegal. Nevertheless the assembled magnates declared him a 'proved' imposter, and the contemporary Harleian MS. 433 in the British Library states that, their oath to Edward V notwithstanding, 'now every good, true Englishman is bound upon knowledge had of the said very tr
ue title [of Gloucester] to depart from the first oath so ignorantly given to him to whom it appertained not.'

  On the following day, says Mancini, 'All the lords foregathered at the house of Richard's mother [Baynard's Castle], whither he had purposefully betaken himself, that these events might not take place in the Tower where the young King was confined. There the whole business was transacted.' The Protector was also determined to emulate his brother Edward IV, whose accession ceremonies had taken place at Baynard's Castle.

  Again, the proceedings were constitutionally correct. Buckingham rode at the head of the deputation, which comprised the lords, commons, knights, Lord Mayor of London, aldermen and chief citizens, all anxious to win the favour of their future monarch and so avoid his terrible displeasure.

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  Buckingham presented the petition, beseeching Gloucester most eloquently that he should accept the crown, so that the country might escape the dangers of a minority and a disputed succession and enjoy peace through stable, firm government. He told the Duke that the people would not have the sons of Edward IV to reign over them, and that if he refused their request they would have no choice but to choose someone else. Gloucester displayed initial reluctance but at length agreed to accept the crown. Thus, says Croyland, 'having summoned armed men in fearful and unheard of numbers from the north, the Protector assumed the government of the kingdom, with the title of king'. Mancini says he usurped or occupied ('occupant') the kingdom.

 
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