Was Weir Right

by Sheilah O’Connor

In his Richard III ,Charles Ross writes:

“Apart from an extraordinary sensitivity to any criticism of their eponymous hero, it has been a persistent weakness of the more extreme ‘revisionists’ to regard anything written about Richard III after1485 as ipso facto discredited and prejudiced, except when it happens to suit their case. For example, Polydore Vergil, as a Tudor author corrupted by Morton, cannot be relied upon, and yet becomes an accepted authority when he reports a general belief that the Princes were still alive and had been spirited away abroad. Similarly, the story that Elizabeth Woodville, about to leave sanctuary, wrote to her son the Marquess of Dorset urging him to return to England, rests solely on the testimony of Vergil, but is nevertheless reputable because it shows that Elizabeth had no reason to mistrust Richard,for, the argument runs, if he had killed her sons by her second marriage, whyshould she risk her son by her first marriage? Far too much of the pro-Ricardian stance rests on hypothesis and speculation, on a series ofconnected ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, on the ‘may have been’, or even worse -the unacceptable historical imperative -the ‘must have been’.” (p.lii)

It was to see if I was guilty of this, to see if our Society was guilty of this that I decided to read some anti-Richard books. I chose Desmond Seward’s Richard III, England’s Black Legend and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir. I also read Seward’s latest title, The Wars of the Roses but it didn’t add anything significant. I also checked The Croyland Chronicle and thought of using Ross, but had I done so, this would have been a very different paper.

The first thing that struck me was how shoddy their research was.  That was a shame as they do have a few good points to make, if you can only winnow them out. I am playing Devil’s Advocate, so I may not believe in what I am writing here, quite as strongly as it may appear, but that shouldn’t be taken to mean that I don’t think there is truth to some of this.

However, I was disappointed to discover that I was not the right person to have read these books. I believed that I was open minded. I don’t think Richard was a saint, I was ready to be convinced that he was worse that we usually like to think. But for all of Seward’s and Weir’s earnestness, I just cannot accept Thomas More as a reputable source and that is crucial to their arguments.

More was an important man, well connected, intelligent, respected. He was a lawyer who grew up in London, whose father would have recognized Richard by sight. We would like to believe that More’s history is the end result of Bishop Morton whispering slanders into the willing ears of a young More. But he had many other possible sources. His kinsman, William Roper was Richard’s Commissioner of Array for Kent. Bishop Richard Fitz James had been Edward IV’s chaplain,Treasurer of St. James during Richard’s reign, and finally Bishop of London. More’s predecessor as Under Treasurer was one Sir John Cutts – Richard’s receiver of Crown lands and his cousin by marriage. Dr. John Argentine was still around. There are good reasons to pay attention to what More says. But all this didn’t matter to me and it is important to keep that in mind. None of the information I am going to present here is based upon More, although his story may corroborate it.

Both Weir and Seward believe that there is truth to the idea that Richard killed Henry VI or at least took part in the murder. What do contemporary sources say?

Dr. John Warkworth wrote a chronicle around 1483: “King Harry…was put to death the 21st day of May on a Tues. night between eleven and twelve of the clock, being then at the Tower, the Duke of Gloucester, brother to King Edward, and many other.”

The Croyland Chronicler writes, “I will say nothing about how at this time, the body of King Henry was found lifeless… May God have shown mercy to the man who thus dared to lay his sacrilegious hands on the Lord’s anointed…He it was who did the deed deserves the name of tyrant.” A lowly murderer is not called a tyrant. That is a term for a ruler and since no one thinks that Edward did the deed himself, this is perhaps referring to someone who later became king. Vergil, and another chronicler, Fabyan, both agree that “the most common fame” was that Henry VI was “struck with a dagger by the hands of the Duke of Gloucester” or that “the Duke of Gloucester was not altogether guiltless.”

Phillippe deCommines says that Gloucester, “killed this good man with his own hands,or at least had him killed in his presence.”

Rous wrote thatGloucester, “caused others to kill the holy man, or as many think, did so by his own hand.”

Pietro Carmelino, an Italian cleric who had been Edward IV’s court poet, wrote in September 1486 that Richard had murdered Henry VI although, like Rous, he had praised Richard while Richard lived.

Bernard Andre, who wrote a sycophantic biography of Henry VII, said that Gloucester had arranged the murder at Edward’s orders. The Milanese ambassador to England informed the King of France that Edward had “caused King Henry to be secretly assassinated at the Tower.”

Richard was 18 years old. His life up till then had been full of strife. His father and brother had been killed, beheaded and mocked as traitors when he was only eight. He had to flee the country as a child and had seen betrayal often. After Tewkesbury, again, aged 18, he had sentenced the Duke of Somerset and others to death. Under conditions like these, you grow up tough. I think that Richard probably oversaw Henry VI’s murder. Edward IV wouldn’t go over and say “Kill him ” himself, but this was regicide so who better to send than the king’s brother to show that this had royal approval – to make sure that it was done.

Richard’s adored older brother, the King of England, had given him the lesson of political murder.

He gave him other lessons as well. Edward felt free to trample on people’s rights – including hereditary titles and lands. He deprived the Countess of Warwick of lands that were hers by birth and both Clarence and Gloucester continued this. Richard also forced the Countess of Oxford to sign over her land, this being made easier by the fact that she was a weak old lady. Land equaled power and Richard was intent upon building power. (Quite likely this was on behalf of his brother). While Edward ruled in the south, Richard kept the peace in the north but this urge to acquire land led to ruthlessness.

When George of Clarence died, Richard moved swiftly to not only assume Clarence’s positions but his lands as well. While no one seriously blames Richard for George’s death, there is also no indication that he protested it either. Vergil reports that later, Edward frequently lamented how no one had pleaded for Clarence’s life. Like the murder of Henry VI, this was a death made for the greater good, but you have to wonder how much Richard had to harden himself further. Richard got licenses to found colleges at Middleham and Barnard, three days after Clarence’s killing – on the same day that Richard became Great Chamberlain again – a position he had had to give up to Clarence. Did he feel the need to have priests pray for his soul? This was, after all, the purpose of such colleges.

It is when we come to the events of 1483, that we really have to question what Richard was like. By 1480,Edward’s riotous living was catching up with him. Not only was he a compulsive womanizer but Mancini notes that Edward followed the Roman tradition of vomiting in order to eat again. He had put on a lot of weight and was generally in poor physical shape.

Richard had spent Christmas of 1482 in London and attended Parliament in January of 1483, leaving in late February, just over a month before Edward died. It is quite likely that Richard realized that Edward was not healthy and was already looking ahead and making plans just incase. Perhaps in those three months together, the two brothers discussed the future and Richard would have known he would be the Protector. He knew the fate of previous protectors and would have been trying to ensure that this did not happen to him.

Certainly, by the time he met young Edward V, he was prepared to act quickly and decisively. He had Rivers, Grey, Vaughan and Haute arrested and immediately sent up north. Once he was in London, according to Mancini, he tried to get them killed “by obtaining a decision of the Council convicting them of preparing ambushes and of being guilty of treason itself. But this he was quite unable to achieve, because there appeared no certain case as regards the ambushes and even had the crimes been manifest, it would not have been treason for at that time, he was neither regent, nor did he hold any other public office.” You will remember that when Richard, Buckingham and Edward V entered London, he sent before them “4 wagons loaded with weapons…besides criers to make generally known that these arms had been collected by the Duke’s enemies and stored at convenient points outside the capital, so as to attack and slay the Duke of Gloucester. Since many knew these charges to be false, because the arms in question had been placed there long before the late King’s death when war was waged against the Scots, mistrust both of his accusations and designs upon the throne was exceedingly augmented.” (Mancini). Croyland reports, “However, a great cause of anxiety, which was growing, was the detention in prison of theking’s relatives and servants.”

Even though the Council refused to convict Rivers, et al, Richard had them all brought to Pontefract, beheaded and thrown into a common grave. He then confiscated their lands, which again, legally he would not be able to do unless they had been attainted.

You will not be surprised to learn that there was a great deal of fear and speculation in London at this point. When Richard’s men from the north gathered ominously outside the city, a ” sinister rumour ” started circulating that he was planning to seize the throne. The panic died down, the rumours did not.

Richard began riding through the streets of London on a regular basis, but he wasn’t cheered. Preachers talked of how wonderful he was and the people remained silent. Buckingham, by all accounts a golden-haired, silver-tongued Plantagenet, spoke to the Mayor, Aldermen and other leading citizens, but according to the Great Chronicle, no one was impressed.

No doubt many people preferred to see Richard as King. Probably many were pleased to see the Queen’s party fall, but there was a great deal of worry over how it was done.

All this was made much worse with the beheading of Hastings. Like Edward IV, William Hastings appeared to have been a popular man, well known and well liked by the citizens of London. The Croyland Chronicle says,” On the previous day, with remarkable shrewdness, the Protector had divided the Council so that, in the morning, part met at Westminster, part inthe Tower, where the King was. On 13 June, the 6th day of the week, when hecame to the Council in the Tower, on the authority of the Protector, Lord Hastings was beheaded. Two senior prelates were imprisoned in different castles in Wales. In this way, without justice or judgment, the three strongest supports of the new King were removed and with all the rest of his faithful men expecting something similar, these two dukes thereafter, did whatever they wanted.” As the Great Chronicle says, the execution of Hastings was done “without any process of law or lawful examination.” It would have taken a very brave man to have stood against Richard at this point.

Predictably, the people of London were aghast. Within 2 hours of Hastings’ death, a proclamation was being read out in the streets about Hastings’ treason but no doubt most felt as Mancini did: “Thus fell Hastings, killed not by those enemies he had always feared, but by a friend he had never doubted.”

By the time Richard claimed the throne, it must not have been a surprise to anyone. There is no way of knowing what would have happened had Richard followed due process of law in all this. Perhaps he knew that if the Church examined Edward IV’s supposed pre-contract, they would have dismissed it. All he needed was a plausible reason to set aside his nephews. You will remember that the first story he tried was Edward’s bastardy. This was an old one – Clarence had also used it. For whatever reason, he decided not to go with it, choosing instead to emphasize the illegitimacy of Edward’s children, due to the betrothal, to witchcraft, to whatever reason he thought might be accepted. Canon lawyers, like the Croyland Chronicler, might object, but the general populace would probably have accepted it gladly, didaccept it but for one thing. Pragmatists all, they knew that Richard would never be safe while the boys lived. He had had Hastings, Rivers, Grey, Vaughan,and Haute killed despite the refusal of the Council to convict them of anything. If he showed himself so willing to kill this way, no one doubted he would do the same to the boys. So it didn’t matter if he did or not. He was believed capable of it.

A rumour spread in Fall of 1483 said that the boys had been murdered. In January of 1484, the Councillor of France was talking about it as an accepted fact. According to Croyland, men in the south planned to spirit Edward’s daughters out of Sanctuary and across to Europe incase something happened to the boys.

Did Buckingham rebel because with the boys gone, he now saw his chance to be king?

I am notgoing to get into a discussion of who killed the princes. I will point out however that Richard had learned well the lesson of the politically expedient murder. Edward’s children were pawns, but exceedingly powerful ones and as long as they were alive, they were dangerous.

It is said that Elizabeth Woodville would not have let her daughters out of Sanctuary if she knew Richard had killed her sons. But he had killed a son of hers -Richard Grey, and a brother, Earl Rivers.

Although Buckingham’s rebellion was a disaster, a lot of people had been involved with it. Croyland says “The people round about London and throughout Kent, Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset, Devon, Somerset, Wiltshire and Berkshire as well as some other southern counties decided to set matters right.” I think they must have been very brave. There must have been, among that group, people who felt that no matter how much better it might be to have an adult on the throne, Richard had lost their support by the manner in which he did it.

In conclusion, although this paper does not follow Weir and Seward in many, indeed most things, both authors are useful in presenting ideas and facts that Ricardians are wont to ignore. Reading these books sent me thinking along new directions, which is surely what any historian should hope for.

Sheilah O’Connor