Bishop Stillington’s Testimony: Was it Enough under Church Law?

Richard III remains one of the most controversial kings of England because of the manner in which he came to the throne:  not by battle or conquest, but by a legal claim that Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville was invalid, rendering their children ineligible to stand in the line of succession.  The grounds for the legal claim were enumerated in a petition brought forth to the Three Estates in June 1483, and were later entered into the January 1484 rolls of Parliament under the Act commonly referred to as Titulus Regius (title of the king). 

On close inspection, Titulus Regius asserted four reasons justifying the invalidation of Edward IV’s marriage to Woodville:

First, he did so without consulting his own royal council, government, or the peers of the realm (‘And here also we consider how that the said pretensed marriage betwixt the above-named King Edward and Elizabeth Grey was made of great presumption, without the knowing and assent of the lords of this land’). 

Second, it was achieved through witchcraft (‘And also by sorcery and witchcraft committed by the said Elizabeth and her mother Jaquette, Duchess of Bedford, as the common opinion of the people and the public voice and fame is through all this land … [which] shall be proved sufficiently in time and place convenient’).

Third, it was improper under church law (‘And here also we consider how that the said pretensed marriage was made prively [sic] and secretly, without edition of banns, in a private chamber, a profane place, and not openly in the face of the Church, after the law of God’s Church’). 

Finally, Edward IV had been previously married to Eleanor Talbot (‘And how also that at the time of contract of the same pretensed marriage, and before and long time after, the said King Edward was and stood married and trothplight to one Dame Eleanor Butler [née Talbot], daughter of the old earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the same King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, long time before he made the said pretensed marriage with the said Elizabeth Grey in manner and form abovesaid’).

There is no controversy surrounding the first and third legal grounds asserted in Titulus Regius.  They stated known and uncontested facts.  Edward IV’s wedding to Woodville was conducted without any input from the king’s ministers, it was ‘clandestine’ in the eyes of the medieval Church, and it deviated from centuries of English royal practice.  A king’s marriage was a matter of great importance for the realm as it provided an opportunity for England to form a military and economic alliance with a foreign power, and it involved carefully managed negotiations between high-level diplomats over things like the future queen-consort’s dowry and how she would be financially supported. The announcement of the Woodville marriage in 1464 – presented months later as a fait accompli and denying the public the spectacle of a grand wedding – was not greeted with universal joy and acceptance.  It alienated many of the king’s most important supporters, the most notable being Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick, aka the ‘Kingmaker’.  These facts are accepted by virtually all historians.

The most controversial aspects of Titulus Regius are the other two grounds – witchcraft and precontract.  This essay will not get into the witchcraft claim, but will focus instead on the alleged precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.  In courts throughout fifteenth-century Continental Europe, the existence of a previous marriage contract would not have been referred to an ecclesiastical court, but would have been determined by their own civil or quasi-secular courts.  Yet England, despite rejecting many elements of medieval church doctrine on marriage irregularities and children’s illegitimacy, retained a feature of ancient Roman Christian custom.  Any claims of an irregular marriage were to be referred to the English ecclesiastical courts and adjudicated by their custom and legal procedure. 

The casual reader of history is probably familiar with the evidence produced in 1483.  It was given by Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who reportedly came forth and gave eyewitness testimony that he had personally witnessed the exchange of marriage vows between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.  This occurred before the king took Elizabeth Woodville as his consort. 

No one has addressed whether Stillington’s testimony was sufficient to satisfy the burden of proof under church legal procedure.  Was it enough to stand up in court?  But, first, did Stillington really give this testimony?

There was Evidence of the Precontract

The primary source material concerning Stillington’s testimony comes from Philippe de Commynes (1447-1511), the relevant parts of whose Memoirs of the Reign of Louis XI were written sometime between 1489-1491.  Commynes wrote this work for Angelo Cato, bishop of Vienne, the same man who commissioned Domenico Mancini to travel to England during the fateful Spring of 1483.  The moralizing tone of the Memoirs suggests a wide audience, in the medieval ‘Mirror for Princes’ tradition.  Book 6 of the Memoirs contains the following narrative about events in England in 1483, beginning with Edward IV’s sudden death:

‘King Edward left a wife and two fine sons; one called the prince of Wales, the other the duke of York.  The duke of Gloucester, brother of the late King Edward, took control of the government for his nephew, the prince of Wales, who was about ten years old, and did homage to him as king.  He brought him to London, pretending that he was going to have him crowned, but really to get the other son out of sanctuary in London where he was with his mother, who was somewhat suspicious.  In the end, with the assistance of [Robert Stillington] the bishop of Bath, who had previously been King Edward’s Chancellor before being dismissed and imprisoned (although he still received his money), on his release the duke carried out the deed which you shall hear described in a moment.  This bishop revealed to the duke of Gloucester that King Edward, being very enamoured of a certain English lady, promised to marry her, provided that he could sleep with her first, and she consented.  The bishop said that he had married them when only he and they were present.  He was a courtier so he did not disclose this fact but helped to keep the lady quiet and things remained like this for a while.  Later King Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers.  She was a widow with two sons.’[1]

Portrait of Philippe de Commynes, whose ‘Memoirs’ state it was Bishop of Bath and Wells who came forward with information about Edward IV’s precontracted marriage to Eleanor Talbot

Later, Commynes circles back to these events, adding the detail that Edward IV died of ‘apoplexy’ (cerebral hemorrhage) after learning he’d been duped by Louis XI in past diplomatic exchanges, and giving the following narrative:

‘For after the death of King Edward, the duke of Gloucester had done homage to his nephew as his king and sovereign lord.  Then immediately he had committed this murder [sic] and, in the full English Parliament, he had the two daughters of Edward degraded and declared illegitimate on the grounds furnished by the bishop of Bath in England.  The bishop had previously enjoyed great credit with King Edward, who had then dismissed and imprisoned him before ransoming him for a sum of money.  The bishop said that King Edward had promised to marry an English lady (whom he named) because he was in love with her, in order to get his own way with her, and that he had made this promise in the bishop’s presence.  And having done so he slept with her; and he made the promise only to deceive her.  Nevertheless such games are very dangerous, as the consequences show.  I have known many courtiers who, if such good fortune had befallen them, would not have lost it for want of promises.  This wicked bishop kept thoughts of revenge in his heart for, perhaps, twenty years.  But it turned out unfortunately for him, for he had a son whom he loved a great deal whom King Richard wanted to endow with wide estates and to marry to one of those two daughters who had been degraded – the one who is the present queen of England and has beautiful children.  This son was serving in a warship by command of his master, King Richard.  He was captured on the coast of Normandy….’[2]

While there are factual errors in Commynes’ Memoirs, for instance Stillington never had a son as described above, this essay will assume that the part about the bishop giving evidence in 1483 is true because it is corroborated elsewhere.  As reported in the September 2018 issue of the Ricardian Bulletin, he was identified in a 1486 Year Book, when the lords and justices wished to question him because ‘the Bishop of B made the bill’. In 1533 and 1534, Eustace Chapuys, Imperial Ambassador to England, wrote to Emperor Charles V that he had been told by ‘many respectable people’ in England that Henry VIII ‘only claims [the crown] by his mother, who was declared by sentence of the Bishop of Bath a bastard, because Edward [IV] had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York’.[3]

Professor Richard Helmholz, a medieval canon law expert at the University of Chicago School of Law, has already demonstrated that Titulus Regius stated a valid and recognized basis to bastardize Edward IV’s children under medieval canon law.  When two adults like Edward IV and Talbot voluntarily exchanged promises to marry the other, and then had sexual intercourse, they formed an enforceable and binding contract.  Woodville could not claim she was an innocent victim of deception, because her own marriage to the king violated church law requirements.  There was no rule preventing such a claim from being raised after the deaths of the putative spouses; indeed, this was frequently done in inheritance disputes in England.  In short, if what Stillington said were true, then Edward IV had committed bigamy and had polluted Woodville from ever becoming his legal wife.  In assessing Titulus Regius, Helmholz conceded that there was a singular, procedural defect in jurisdiction: it hadn’t been referred to a church court to determine the truth of the previous marriage contract.[4]

So how would Stillington’s testimony about the Talbot marriage have fared, if it had come before an ecclesiastical tribunal for adjudication in 1483 or 1484?  Would the court have taken it at face value and received it into evidence, or would there have been some additional process to ensure it was truthful?  Would it have been enough to prove the case, and shift the burden of proof to Woodville and her sons to show they weren’t bastards, or was other proof of the Talbot marriage required?  In order to answer these questions, it is necessary to review briefly the ecclesiastical court rules on witness testimony.

Qualified Witnesses in Marriage Litigation

The great medieval canonist, Raymond of Penyafort, set out in his Summa on Marriage that lawsuits to annul a marriage could not be maintained unless they were initiated by qualified accusers and supported with qualified witnesses.  In actions alleging a perpetual impediment such as described in Titulus Regius, the spouses themselves or any of their blood relatives could bring a claim; if no blood relatives were alive, a total stranger to the family could initiate it.[5]  These were all qualified to bear witness against the marriage, unless they lacked legal standing because they were heretics, perjurers, felons, excommunicated, of servile (villein) station, or juveniles.[6]

But there was an interesting wrinkle in this broad rule, which Penyafort took pains to address.  If a person had been able to raise the objection to the marriage at the time it was made, they would not be heard to testify later against it.  This would seem to preclude Stillington from testifying, since he was aware of the Talbot marriage yet did not raise any objection when Edward IV entered into his union with Woodville.  Penyafort expounds on this situation in the following way:

‘If, indeed, after a marriage is contracted an accuser appears, since he did not speak out in public when the bans [sic] were published by custom in the churches, we can well ask whether his accusation should be admitted.  On this we are led to make the following distinction: if at the time of the aforesaid announcement he who attacks the marriage was outside the diocese, or the announcement could not reach him for some other reason, so that, for example, laboring under a fever from serious illness his sanity deserted him, or he was of such tender years … or was impeded by some other lawful cause, his accusation ought to be heard.’[7]

It is historical fact that the Woodville marriage was not announced by banns or official government proclamation. It had been conducted clandestinely in a private chapel or house, and was kept secret from Edward IV’s own government for several months.  Without knowing exactly where and when it happened, no one can say whether Stillington was in the same diocese, or could have remotely raised an objection. It seems extremely unlikely. This interesting wrinkle, in other words, would not have applied to the facts of the case, and would not have supported an objection to Stillington’s testimony.

Trustworthy Witnesses – Fidedignus and Fidedigni

When a witness gave testimony, their character and manner of testifying would be measured against the theological concept of a ‘trustworthy man’.  The Ordinary Gloss of Pope Gregory IX’s Decretals described trustworthy men as those of good reputation, held in high regard, and older in age, citing several texts referring to the wisdom of age.[8]  This can also be seen in the canonical use of the terms fidedignus or fidedigni (literally, ‘faith-worthy man’ or ‘faith-worthy men’) in describing the type of people who were summoned to testify in church inquisitions, visitations, and in settling the estates of the deceased. 

Professor Ian Forrest of Oxford’s Oriel College surveyed the evolution of the trustworthy man concept, including hundreds of diocesan court papers from medieval England.  He concluded that the following characteristics enhanced a witness’s credibility as a fidedignus in the eyes of the medieval church:[9]

  • High status, power, and position
  • Consistency in their testimony
  • Proximity to events in question
  • Having better knowledge than others (e.g., being an eyewitness)
  • Manner of speech
  • Objectivity and lack of bias towards or against one party
  • Not reluctant to give information
  • Expertise in any technical, legal, or fact issue at hand
  • Current secular or ecclesiastical officeholder in good standing
  • Landholder who is in good stead with paying their taxes
  • Male gender

While Professor Forrest was primarily looking at the process of church inquests and visitations, what he has described is equally applicable – and is indeed a common theme – in how witnesses were assessed in run-of-the-mill medieval marriage disputes.  What little we know about Stillington indicates that he received a Doctorate of Civil Law from Oxford before 1443, and thus was a trained canonist, having demonstrated proficiency in Roman civil law and mastery of canon law.[10] He rose quickly in the service of Bishop Beckington of Bath and Wells, received diplomatic assignments from Henry VI, and had been recommended to his benefices by a handful of English bishops. He was Edward IV’s Keeper of the Privy Seal when he personally witnessed the vows exchanged between Talbot and the king. At the time, he was an Archdeacon of Taunton but was later promoted in Edward IV’s government, serving as his Chancellor from 1467 to 1473, and becoming the Bishop of Bath and Wells in 1466, a bishopric he held continuously until his death. As far as we know, he had no personal animosity against Woodville or her children, and had nothing to gain by testifying in 1483.[11] 

We do know that in 1478, around the time of George of Clarence’s treason trial and execution, Stillington had been arrested and briefly held in custody by Edward IV.  For what, is still a matter of intense speculation.  No charges were brought against him. He was released after paying a fine, pardoned without loss of income or status, and would be employed as a royal ambassador in 1479.  There is some suggestion that his health was failing, or that his advancing age (he was born circa 1410) kept him from further government service.  There is also some suggestion, by Commynes, that he was resentful of the treatment he had received in 1478 at the hands of Edward IV, and possibly even expected to receive some form of reward for the evidence he gave in 1483.  These would all be areas for a church tribunal to interrogate.

Probatio Plena – the Two Witness Rule

While Stillington’s testimony would have satisfied the elements of proof needed to establish the Talbot marriage (exchange of vows, consummation), one last hurdle existed.  Following Roman civil law, a case relying solely on oral testimony had to be proven with at least two witnesses whose accounts were consistent with each other.  The ‘two-witness rule’ had its origins in pre-Christian Rome as full proof (‘probatio plena’) and was absorbed into church doctrine based on certain passages in the Bible.  Unsurprisingly, church fathers encountered problems with the rule’s functionality in litigation involving clandestine marriages and illicit sexual behavior. There was nothing to prevent a scallywag from seducing his paramour with a private, unwitnessed exchange of words creating a marital contract, then abandoning her for a subsequent partner in a public ceremony witnessed by dozens. Without two witnesses to testify to the first marriage, the courts could not enforce it, leaving the couple to the second marriage condemned to live in a perpetual state of bigamy.

‘When a witness in a 1291 marriage suit claimed to have been an eyewitness to a man and a woman having sex (hoc vidit oculate fide), he was making a claim that was meant to boost the significance of his testimony.  But on his own he could not meet the canonical standard of proof, which demanded two witnesses who had seen or heard the events at issue. In cases hinging on sexual activity this was an understandably rare occurrence.  For some in the church facing the huge challenge of separating the clergy from their wives and concubines in the wake of twelfth-century reform, the standard of proof was unacceptably high.  In the succeeding generations canon lawyers began to assert new doctrines of proof that made it easier for the authorities to convict offenders.’[12]

Exceptions to the two-witness rule were carved out.  In his highly influential encyclopedia of procedural canon law, William Durandis (1231-1296) identified more than two dozen scenarios where one witness would suffice as probatio plena.  The word of the Pope or other high clergyman, of course, could alone prove a fact.[13]  A father’s testimony could alone prove that his son had been coerced into becoming a monk.  ‘Half-full’ proof such as that provided by one unimpeachable witness could be converted to full proof by other indicia, such as circumstantial evidence or solid evidence of publica fama.[14]  Publica fama or public fame was the report of many people, what Ian Forrest described as the ‘suspicion amongst good and serious men of the neighbourhood, and it was thought sufficient to force a suspect to answer before a judge’.[15]  In support of this notion, Helmholz quotes from one of Pope Gregory IX’s Decretals which went so far as to say that ‘if the crime is so public that it may rightly be called notorious, in that case neither witness nor accuser is necessary’.  Titulus Regius implicitly alludes to this notion when it says the Woodville marriage was invalid, ‘as the common opinion of the people and the public voice and fame is throughout all this land.’[16]


Based on this reading of the canon law, it seems evident that Stillington would have been allowed to give evidence about his personal knowledge of the Talbot marriage, even though he did not object after hearing about the king’s clandestine marriage to Woodville.  His testimony would have presented compelling evidence, since he was an eyewitness to the exchange of promises and was aware of their subsequent sexual consummation.  As a bishop and Oxford-trained canonist, he would have been granted the standing of a fidedignus, but his testimony could have been impeached if it were shown, as implied by Commynes, that he harbored a personal grudge against Edward IV for his arrest in 1478, or that he had done something bringing his character and truthfulness into question.  But as the historical record currently stands, there is no factual evidence to support impeachment.

The more nagging question is whether Stillington’s testimony could have been enough to prove the Talbot contract, or whether it needed to be supported with another witness or evidence of public notoriety.  In their exhaustive surveys of medieval church litigation, Professors Richard Helmholz, Charles Donahue, and Ian Forrest discovered many cases when an English church court ruled that a precontract had been proven with only one witness to it.  But none of those cases involved members of the royal blood, or dictated the succession to the English crown.

It would be most interesting to compare how other medieval aristocrats in Western Europe marshaled evidence to dissolve or challenge their marriages.  One suspects that some end-run around canon law might have been tolerated if the political aim was popular, or if a full-blown trial of the claim would have mired a government in protracted and divisive litigation.  This was Professor Helmholz’s conclusion too.  Eleanor of Aquitaine and King John both managed to annul their first marriages by claiming somewhat disingenuously that an impediment of consanguinity existed with their spouses, a ‘discovery’ they made, respectively, 15 and 10 years after solemnization of their original marriage vows.  Henry VIII tried to annul his marriages to Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves, and Catherine Howard based on the existence of previous marriage contracts, but he only succeeded in proving one of them because the woman in question (Cleves) confessed to it.[17] 

Nevertheless, Richard III did have a reputation for being a keen observer of legal procedure, and he must have been aware of the long-standing church doctrine on probatio plena.  The words of Titulus Regius itself seem to admit this defect with Stillington’s testimony when it says the invalidity of Edward IV’s marriage to Woodville was a matter of common opinion.  Presumably, the author of that petition, and probably Richard III himself, would have been prepared to substantiate that allegation if required by church authorities.

Author’s Note:  I would like to thank my fellow Loon for pointing out Henry VIII’s trials and travails in annulling his marriages, and referring me to H.A. Kelly’s article and text cited in the Endnotes. She wrote a very thought-provoking comparison between Henry VIII’s and Richard III’s precontract claims, which can be found at

(An earlier version of this essay was published courtesy of the Ricardian Bulletin, June 2021, copyright holders Susan Troxell and the Richard III Society, CLG)

[1] M. Jones (trans. & ed.), Philippe de Commynes Memoirs, The Reign of Louis XI 1461-83, Penguin Books, 1972, pp. 353-54.

[2] Ibid, pp. 396-397.

[3] D. Johnson, P. Langley, S. Pendlington, ‘More than Just a Canard: The Evidence for the Precontract,’ Ricardian Bulletin, September 2018, pp. 51-52.

[4] R.H. Helmholz, ‘Bastardy Litigation in Medieval England,’ American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XIII (1969), pp. 360-383.  R.H. Helmholz, ‘The Sons of Edward IV: A Canonical Assessment of the Claim that they were Illegitimate,’ in Richard III Loyalty, Lordship and Law, P.W. Hammond (ed.), 1986, pp. 106-120.

[5] P. Payer (trans.), Raymond of Penyafort, Summa on Marriage, Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 2005, Title XX, p 75-76.

[6] R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England, Cambridge Uni Press, 1974, pp. 154-164.

[7] Summa on Marriage, Title XX, para. 2, p. 76.

[8] Ian Forrest, Trustworthy Men:  How Inequality and Faith Made the Medieval Church, Princeton University Press, 2018, pp. 108-109.

[9] Trustworthy Men, pp. 91-119.

[10] Kelly, ‘The Case Against Edward IV’s Marriage and Offspring’, The Ricardian, September 1998, p. 326-335.

[11] Bryan Dunleavy, ‘Will the Real Bishop Stillington Please Stand Up?’, Ricardian Bulletin, September 2020, pp. 54-57.  Michael Hicks, ‘Robert Stillington d. 1491’, in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[12] Trustworthy Men, pp. 252-253, citing Norma Adams and Charles Donahue, Jr. (eds.), Select Cases from the Ecclesiastical Courts of the Province of Canterbury c. 1200-1301, Selden Society, 1981, p. 357.

[13] R. H. Helmholz, ‘The Trial of Thomas More and the Law of Nature,’ (7/3/08) pp 9-10, footnote 31 (accessed 12/1/2019).  Professor Charles Donahue at Harvard University describes the case of Taillor and Smerles versus Lovechild and Taillor, from 1380, in which a woman proved her marriage using the testimony of only one witness.  She prevailed even though her estranged husband called 4 witnesses to testify that she was actually married to someone else. It is important to note that the prevailing woman used the testimony of a chaplain who had been present when the parties exchanged words of a de presenti marriage contract.  Clearly, to the court, the testimony of a single churchman was better than 4 non-clerics.  Charles Donahue, Jr., Law, Marriage, and Society in the Later Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 274-5.

[14] Law, Marriage, and Society, p 164.

[15] Trustworthy Men, pp. 251-259, 254. 

[16] Helmholz, The Sons of Edward IV: A Canonical Assessment, pp. 116-117.

[17] H.A. Kelly, The Matrimonial Trials of Henry VIII, Wipf and Stock; Reprint edition 2004, pp. 252-258 discusses the church court procedure used to try to annul the marriage to Anne Boleyn.

Edward IV, Dame Eleanor and the Phantom Web of Impediments

A definitive refutation of the argument concerning potential impediments to marriage between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.



The precontract (i.e. prior marriage) between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler, née Talbot, has long been a subject of debate, but what has not previously been claimed is that Edward and Eleanor were so closely related as to have been unable to make a valid marriage without a special dispensation from the Pope.  Recently, however, a writer using the pen name of Latrodecta has claimed (  that they shared a relationship within the prohibited degrees, viz. “3rd degree consanguinity, 3rd degree affinity”.

Latrodecta has identified this impediment as arising from Edward’s mother Cecily Neville being the first cousin of Maude Neville of Furnivall, the first wife of Eleanor’s father, John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury, and the mother of Eleanor’s older half-siblings. The claim is apparently that – despite the relationship involving no blood tie between Edward and Eleanor – it counts…

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The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I

Maximilian exhibit-190

Portrait of Maximilian I, from the workshop or a follower of Albrecht Dürer.

Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I (1459-1519) is one of those larger-than-life historical figures. Straddling the medieval and Renaissance eras, he worked tirelessly and spent a vast fortune to establish the Habsburgs as one of Europe’s dominant ruling families. In England, the House of York considered him a vital ally to the interests of English territories and trade on the continent.

In 1484, Maximilian’s envoy asked Richard III to send him 6,000 archers to strengthen that alliance, calling the English king ‘that prince of all Christian princes’ ‘of very great and excellent virtues’ to whom Maximilian had ‘most love and affection, and with whom he desires most to ally and confederate himself’[1].  Expressing no consternation over the deposition of Edward V or the disappearance of the ‘princes in the Tower’, and perhaps believing they were still alive, Maximilian later supported the Yorkist claimants Lambert Simnel, Perkin Warbeck, and Edmund de la Pole.[2]

To commemorate the 500th anniversary of his death, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York assembled The Last Knight – an exhibit of 180 objects from 30 public and private collections in Europe, the Middle East, and America.  Featured were Maximilian’s own extravagant armors reflecting his patronage of the greatest European armorers of his age, as well as related manuscripts, letters, paintings, portraiture, sculpture, glass, and toys.  The exhibit displayed the Tournament Tapestry of Frederick the Wise, Prince Elector of Saxony, which contains a possible representation of Perkin Warbeck (see Ricardian Bulletin, December 2019, for an article deciphering the tournament scene and its portraiture). Through these objects, Maximilian’s dynastic ambitions and the centrality of chivalry to his personal rule were put into sharp focus.

Maximilian exhibit-179

Tournament tapestry of Frederick the Wise, prince elector of Saxony (circa 1490), which possibly depicts Perkin Warbeck watching from the loggia above, fourth from the left. Warbeck had been received at the Burgundian court of Maximilian I as the surviving second son of Edward IV.

The exhibit began with Maximilian’s first foray onto the international scene at age 17 when he married Mary Duchess of Burgundy (1457-1482) in 1477.  The marriage would not have been possible without the support of Margaret of York — Mary’s step-mother and Richard III’s sister.  Although he was the Archduke of Austria and the only surviving son of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III, Maximilian brought no lands, no income, no affinity, and no experience in ruling.  He was openly ridiculed for being a crude German outsider, illiterate in French, Flemish and Dutch, and unfamiliar with the rituals of the sophisticated Burgundian court. Maximilian was not deterred.  He had his wife’s Burgundian inheritance to protect from external and internal threats following the death of Charles the Bold in 1477.

To demonstrate how Maximilian promoted himself as a credible protector of the Burgundian inheritance, the first object greeting visitors to the exhibit was the field armor that Maximilian commissioned from master armorer Lorenz Helmschmid and had worn in battle and in triumph in 1480 when he defeated the French forces of Louis XI at the Battle of Guinegate.  A masterpiece of late Gothic style, the exhibit offered the unique opportunity to see it mounted along with its matching sallet, now owned separately.  To say this armor dazzles the eyes is no exaggeration. With its elaborately worked fluting, pierced designs, and copper-alloy decorative bands and components, it shows a wasp-waisted young knight around 5’4” to 5’6” in height who wanted to make a strong statement.  The long, articulated sabatons which come to gently arched points, describe a man with his feet grounded in medieval tradition.  It cost Maximilian the modern equivalent of over £1,000,000 to have the suit tailor-made, something that would have told potential enemies that he had (his wife’s) money to support armies too.

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The exhibit’s curators surrounded this young knight with portraits and objects memorializing the preeminence and victories of Charles the Bold, including Charles’ gorgeously illuminated prayer book, and medallions and painted glass panels celebrating the union of Mary with Maximilian.  Originally constructed for the Bruges Chapel of the Holy Blood, the glass panels (now owned by Victoria & Albert Museum) show a haughty and beautiful Duchess Mary and her handsome, blond-haired husband.

One particularly resonant object was Maximilian’s personal copy of Charles the Bold’s military ordinances from 1473, a set of regulations for the organization and administration of a permanent Burgundian army.  It is possible that Charles gave the manuscript to Maximilian at their first and only meeting, in Trier, in 1473.  Maximilian’s personal interest in military ordinances for standing armies is reflected in the notes he made in the margins of this book.

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Because he was constantly engaged in military campaigns to defend his wife’s inheritance and that of his only son Philip the Handsome (1478-1506), Maximilian was in continual need of field armor.  But his interest in armor was also motivated by the chivalric pursuit of tournament fighting.  The Last Knight had as its largest component the wide variety of tournament armor commissioned by and made for Maximilian for jousts of war, jousts of peace, foot combat, and free tourney.  These events gave Maximilian a platform to show his physical prowess and bravery, and an opportunity to win other suits of armor as trophies.  Jousts of war and foot combat required the greatest protection, as the combatants used terrifying weapons of war to demonstrate their skills.  Thus, armors for the joust of war and that of foot combat were not luxuriously outfitted.  Jousts of peace allowed more decorative armors, such as the one made by Jörg Helmschmid the Younger around 1494, when Maximilian had settled affairs in the Burgundian realm and relocated to Innsbruck after being made King of the Romans in 1486.

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The manufacture of armor and military devices required industrial sophistication, and The Last Knight revealed how Maximilian was personally involved in encouraging new technologies.  He designed a battle horse saddle by which the rider could free up his right hand by ‘stowing’ his lance in a spring-loaded bracket.  He commissioned the design of mechanical breastplates for jousts of peace; when the target was struck, the breastplate would eject the shield and sometimes explode into pieces in mid-air.   Maximilian spent a lot of time devising new tournament games, and understood the dramatic effect of this technology on audiences.

Always seeking the most innovative designs, Maximilian’s patronage extended to locksmiths and clockmakers as well as armorers in Italy, Brussels, the Franche-Comté, and the German-speaking lands.  Some were given noble titles as a direct result of supplying him with armors needed for himself, his troops, and for presentation gifts such as the horse bard he gave to Henry VIII. A selected set of Maximilian’s letters of correspondence was on display, revealing that he habitually incurred large unpaid debts to these artisans.

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Maximilian’s armors not only reflected his self-promotion as the ideal knight, but also cast him as a patron of lofty fraternal organizations.  The most prestigious of these was his induction in 1478 as the sovereign of the Burgundian Order of the Golden Fleece. The Last Knight offered the exceptionally rare privilege of seeing one of only three known surviving Golden Fleece collars from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Livery collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece (16th century)

By securing the admission of his father and descendants to the order, Maximilian was able to associate the House of Habsburg firmly with Burgundy. In 1489, Maximilian became a member of the English Order of the Garter, an honor he greatly esteemed.  Four years later, Maximilian inherited from his father the patronage of the Order of Saint George, a Christian fellowship open to both men and women for the defense of Christendom from Ottoman attack.  Badges and motifs from the Orders of the Golden Fleece and of Saint George figured prominently in several of the armors made for Maximilian and his heirs.

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Maximilian enjoyed fighting and being patron of chivalric orders, but he also participated in other activities required of a knight.  One of the non-combative activities was the courtly art of dance.  Maximilian thoroughly enjoyed dancing and was widely reputed to be one of the best dancers in his kingdom, enthusiastically partaking in the celebratory rituals that followed a long day on the tiltyard.  For this, he wished his rule to be memorialized by a series of illustrations showing how tournaments would find their summation in feasts, dance pageantry, masquerades, and mummery.  Oddly enough, men like Maximilian would sometimes don women’s clothing during the masquerades, suggesting that a heroic concept of manhood was not incompatible with cross-dressing.

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Finally, The Last Knight demonstrated the intensity of Maximilian’s efforts to depict himself as a worthy paterfamilias of dynastic lineage.  Using epic story-telling as a medium, he composed Theuerdank to recount his highly romanticized journey to marry Mary of Burgundy in 1477.  Later, he created two literary alter-egos for himself in the characters of Freydal and the White King or Weisskunig.  The heroic exploits of Freydal were commemorated in a series of sketches showing his feats at various tournaments and jousts, and Maximilian later commissioned Albrecht Dürer to create woodcuts from them.

“Freydal” winning Joust of Peace against Jacob de Heere (Woodblock by Albrecht Dürer)

On a grander scale, Maximilian commissioned Dürer, Albrecht Altdorfer, Hans Springinklee, and Wolf Traut, to design and illustrate a monumental Arch of Honor showing Maximilian’s ancestry, his territories, his extended kinship, his predecessors as emperor, his deeds and accomplishments, his personal talents and interests, and thus his glory.  The sheer scale of the project, 195 woodblocks in total, mirrored his unquenchable desire to be remembered.

The exhibit concluded with a pair of gauntlets that belonged to Maximilian and were probably made by Lorenz Helmschmid around 1490.  They were brought from the Low Countries to Spain by his grandson Charles V.  The gauntlets, along with Maximilian’s favorite suit of armor, were objects of deep veneration for Charles, the future king of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor.  Maximilian left Charles and his other grandson Ferdinand with a staggering debt as a result of his spending on armor and all the commemorative art presented in The Last Knight.  Maximilian justified his fiscal profligacy using the voice of his literary alter-ego, der Weisskunig:

‘He who during his life provides no remembrance for himself has no remembrance after his death and the same person is forgotten with the tolling of the bell, and therefore the money that I spend on remembrance is not lost; but the money that is spared on my remembrance, that is a suppression of my future remembrance, and what I do not accomplish during my life for my memory will not be made up for after my death, neither by thee nor others.’

It took several generations of Habsburgs to pay off Maximilian’s debts, but his legacy was indelible.  As a result of the marriages he arranged for his children and grandchildren, the Habsburgs came to rule Spain and its New World colonies, Portugal and its New World colonies, Southern Italy, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and the Low Countries.  His direct descendants were Holy Roman Emperors through 1740 and he laid the foundations for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an empire that influenced European and world politics until its formal dissolution in 1918.  When Maximilian’s grandson Charles V was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1519, he was described by Ludovico Ariosto and others as a ‘world emperor’ ruling an ‘empire on which the sun never sets’.  This phrase would have greatly pleased Maximilian I, a man whose ambition for global fame and respect was forged in the very steel of his armor.

Here’s a further look at Maximilian’s children and his grandson Charles, including some of the stunning armor that he commissioned for them.

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Here’s a look at some more armor that Maximilian commissioned for himself, including his famous silver suit (now lost but preserved in depictions of Saint Maurice), and some other items that were produced by his favorite armorers:

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Text and Photographs © Susan Troxell, 2020

An earlier version of this article originally appeared in the Ricardian Bulletin, March 2020.

Notes & Sources:

The Last Knight: The Art, Armor, and Ambition of Maximilian I, Anne Blood Mann, ed., Catalogue of Exhibit, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019.

Harry Schnitker, Margaret of York-Princess of England, Duchess of York, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust, 2016, pp. 69-89.

[1] Gairdner, James, Letters and Papers Illustrative of the Reigns of Richard III and Henry VII, Rolls Series, 2 vols., 1863, vol. 2, pp. 3- 51, pp. 4-5, 22.

[2] Maximilian’s 1484 embassy to Richard III requested military aid to defend Flanders, and proposed a formal alliance between England, Burgundy and Brittany, against France.  At the time of this diplomatic overture, Maximilian’s only son and heir Philip had been forcibly taken from his custody by the burghers of Bruges, and Maximilian was being denied any access to the 6-year old boy as well as his 4-year old daughter Margaret.  Maximilian’s missive to Richard III complained bitterly and repeatedly of the ‘intermeddling’ injustice done by removing Philip from his protection, and setting up a false governing council in Philip’s name in Bruges.  The missive accused the burghers of using lying words, corruptions, and subtle unlawful ways to get into their hands and power both of Maximilian’s children, accusing them of an ambition to rule and govern, and spreading lies about Maximilian’s intentions to usurp his son’s titles.  Gairdner, Letters and Papers, vol. 2., pp. 8-9, 11-12, 20, 29, 37-38.  Given that Richard III was similarly rumored by some of taking wrongful custody of Edward IV’s sons and having had a secret agenda of setting them aside and ruling himself, it would seem remarkably tone deaf to emphasize this type of wrongdoing in a diplomatic embassy seeking a formal alliance with the English king less than one year after his accession.  There were other grounds to show that the burghers’ actions were illegal, namely, Mary of Burgundy’s last will and testament which provided that Maximilian should govern in Philip’s name during his minority.  Maximilian’s strategy seems to imply that he did not find the aforesaid accusations against Richard III credible, and was indirectly appealing to Richard’s indignation at having his honor and motives questioned by false rumors.

The following are some of the coats of arms that Maximilian achieved by his marriages to the Duchess of Burgundy, and his third wife, Bianca Maria Sforza.  His second marriage to Anne, Duchess of Brittany, was annulled.

The White Rose Of Mortimer?

Most historians now accept that, while the white rose of York was a heraldic badge used by the house of York during the Wars of the Roses, the origins of the red rose of Lancaster can only be traced back to Henry VII.1 After his accession to the throne in 1485 and marriage to Elizabeth of York he effectively invented it when he created the bi-coloured red and white Tudor rose, which symbolised the union of the houses of Lancaster and York. But what about the origins of the white rose of York?

The Welsh Marches – Yorkist Heartland

It is hard to over estimate the influence their Mortimer ancestry had on the Yorkists and their claim to the English throne. The Mortimers were descended from Lionel, duke of Clarence, the third son of King Edward III, whereas the Lancastrian kings of England were descended from his fourth son, John duke of Lancaster. The Mortimer claim, albeit through a female line, was therefore more senior and the Mortimers had long been viewed with suspicion because of this. Upon the death of Edmund Mortimer, fifth earl of March and the family’s last male descendant, both his title and claim to the throne passed to the son of his sister Anne – Richard, third Duke of York (who also had a claim through is paternal ancestors, albeit less senior). York also inherited most of his wealth and therefore the funding for his campaign to eventually press this claim from his Mortimer ancestors. The lands he received included the town of Ludlow in the Welsh marches and its castle, where he and his family spent time and his sons Edward and Edmund had their own separate household, just like Edward’s own son later did.

Even much of the symbolism we now think of as Yorkist originates from the Mortimers. They were not just the earls of March, but also earls of Ulster and both Richard, Duke of York and his eldest son Edward added Mortimer and Ulster to their coats of arms, as did Edward’s daughters.

Edward’s arms before he became Edward IV, combining the Mortimer arms, Ulster and the royal arms of England

Edward also adopted the white lion of the earls of March as heraldic badge alongside the sun in splendour, a sunburst allegedly inspired by his victory over the Lancastrians at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross in 1461. As the name suggests, this place is situated in the Welsh marches not far from Ludlow and the contemporary Davies Chronicle indeed records that just before the battle he had witnessed a natural phenomenon known as parhelion:

“the Monday before the day of battle, . . . about 10 at clock before noon, were seen 3 suns in the firmament shining full clear, where of the people had great marvel, and thereof were aghast. The noble Earl Edward them comforted and said, ‘be of good comfort and dread not; this is a good sign, for these three suns betoken the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, and therefore let us have good heart, and in the name of Almighty God go we against our enemies.’”2

However, the earliest source for the claim that “for the which cause, men imagined, that he gaue the sunne in his full brightnes for his cognisauce or badge” was the Tudor contemporary Edward Hall, whose chronicle wasn’t published until 1548, almost a hundred years after the battle. Moreover, as John Ashdown-Hill has noted:

“Edward, Earl of March (Edward IV) subsequently claimed to be the legitimate heir of his ancestor, King Edward III, and of Edward III’s grandson, King Richard II. Both of those earlier monarchs had also used forms of the sun as one of their royal badges in the fourteenth century.”3

Indeed, a list of heraldic badges used by Richard, duke of York allegedly dating from c. 1460 states that “The badges that he beareth by King Richard II is a white hart and the sun shining”, which implies that the house of York was already laying claim to a sunburst before the battle of Mortimer’s Cross which took place after the duke’s death.4 This would make sense given that the duke, when he submitted his claim to the throne to Parliament on 16 October 1460, specifically argued that after Henry IV, the first Lancastrian king, had deposed Richard II, the throne more properly belonged to Edmund Mortimer, who – as noted above – was descended from the third son of Edward III whereas Henry was only descended from his fourth son.5

Sunburst on Richard II’s tomb effigy (copyright: Westminster Abbey)

Whatever the inspiration for the sunburst in Yorkist heraldry, it is often seen combined with a white rose to form a rose-en-soleil. Edward, who was born in Rouen, France, where his father was stationed during the Hundred Years’ War, was referred to as “the Rose” or “the rose of Rouen” in Yorkist propaganda documents, such as this:

“Lette us walke in a newe wyne yerde, and lette us make us a gay gardon in the monythe of marche with thys fayre whyte ros and herbe, the Erle of Marche.”6


It is therefore not surprising that when Edward, now King Edward IV, incorporated Ludlow as a parliamentary borough in 1473, having set up the Council of Wales and the Marches in the previous year to act on behalf of his infant son and heir, Edward V, for whom he had established a household at Ludlow Castle, he granted the town a coat of arms that combined the white lion of the Earls of March with three white roses. But was this a case of merging existing Yorkist symbolism into Mortimer heraldry or the house of York seizing its Mortimer heritage and reinventing it as Yorkist?

Arms of Ludlow

The Mystery Of Misericord S15

The parish church of St Laurence in Ludlow, sometimes referred to as “Cathedral of the Marches” due to its size and beauty, dates back to at least Norman times, but it was substantially rebuilt in the 15th century after Richard, duke of York, had inherited the Mortimer titles and lands. Part of this building work, which started in 1433 and was completed around 1455, was to enlarge the chancel and add a new roof decorated with roof bosses heavy with Yorkist heraldry, such as Richard’s personal badge, the Falcon and the Fetterlock, and the white Hind at Rest of Richard II.

Ceiling in Ludlow with roof bosses (click to enlarge)

The chancel also received one of the finest collections of misericords to have survived England’s very own Cultural Revolution, King Henry VIII‘s Reformation. Medieval church services could be very long and misericords helped priests, monks or choristers to stand through them even if their seats were folded up by allowing them to lean against a ledge on the underside of the seat. Most of these ornately carved lean-tos were destroyed during the Reformation, in some cases used as firewood to melt the valuable lead out of stained glass windows, many of which were also lost at that time.

Misericord N10 with the Hind at Rest of Richard II

St Laurence’s is home to 28 misericords which appear to have been carved in at least two phases. The first is thought to date from about 1425 and produced 16 misericords while the remaining 12 were carved during the second phase, which followed the completion of the new chancel and roof. They were commissioned by the Guild of St Mary and St John, commonly known as Palmers Guild, a philanthropic confraternity of prominent citizens from Ludlow and the surrounding area. The Guild accounts for 1447 show that 120 planks of “waynscotbord” from Bristol had been acquired to make “new installations … in the high choir of the parish church …”.

The exact distribution of old versus new misericords is not certain as they were removed and reinstalled during the restoration of the church in the 19th century and no inventory was made to document their original position. It is however possible to date individual misericords based on the heraldry used in the carvings. For example, the fetterlock, a badge originally used by Edward Langley, first duke of York, appears on misericord N13 in combination with a falcon to form the personal badge of Richard, Duke of York and misericord S15 shows a rose within a fetterlock, clearly another reference to the house of York.

Misericord N13

A further misericord, N15, has roses flanked by more roses. All three motifs also appear on roof bosses in the ceiling above, so must have been part of the second wave of carvings which followed the expansion of the chancel. Is this evidence for the white rose of York being imported into the Welsh Marches? Not so hasty.

Misericord N15

Misericord S15 is actually reconstituted from fragments. The ledge with the carving of a rose within a fetterlock appears to have been grafted on to a plain seat and it is uncertain whether or not the twisted ring next to it is part of the original supporters as it is completely separate from the main carving.

Misericord S15

The rose on S15 is similar in style to the supporters on misericord N15, so both misericords were probably carved in the same phase, and both have two layers of five petals each while the roses at the centre of N15 have one layer of five petals. However, the twisted ring is empty with no indication if it ever contained another image and, if so, what it was. In the ceiling above is a roof boss with a similar ring, divided into four segments and filled with foliage or flowers. Did the ring on S15 originally correspond to this roof boss? Or did it contain something else?

Leintwardine – The Missing Link?

In the village of Leintwardine, not far from the old Mortimer power base of Wigmore, stands the church of St Mary Magdalene. Its location is rural, its size modest and aesthetically it is unremarkable. Having been built in several phases from the 12th to the late 15th century, each new structure appears to have been grafted on to the earlier ones without much thought for symmetry. Nevertheless, it has received an unusual degree of attention from the powers that be. The Mortimers funded much of the building works and in 1328 Roger Mortimer, first Earl of March (1287 – 1330), made a grant for initially nine and later ten chantry priests to sing daily masses for the souls of King Edward III and Queen Philippa, Edward III’s mother Isabella (who infamously was rumoured to have been Roger’s lover and for a while ruled England with him), the bishop of Lincoln as well as his own family and ancestors. Despite having executed Roger for treason, Edward III himself made two pilgrimages to Leintwardine in 1353, gifting money on one visit and laying a cloth of gold before the statue of the Virgin Mary on the other.

Among the church’s treasures are the wooden choir stalls and misericords in its chancel. Their origin is uncertain. According to one theory, they were brought here from Wigmore Abbey at the dissolution of the monasteries, together with the carved stone fragments now fitted into the wall left and right of the altar. Wigmore Abbey, dedicated in 1179 by the Bishop of Hereford, but originally founded around 1140 at Shobdon by Oliver de Merlimond, a steward of Hugh Mortimer (c.1100 – 1181), was a place of great spiritual significance for the Mortimers and many of them, including several lords of March, were buried there. Tradition has it that every year on the feast of the nativity the abbot led a procession from Wigmore Abbey to St Mary Magdalene, so the church would seem like a natural new home for the choir stalls after the abbey was dissolved. Unfortunately, not much is left of the abbey apart from the abbot’s lodgings which are now incorporated into a private residence. The abbey church is almost completely destroyed, so doesn’t offer any clues.

According to another theory, the stalls were made for the Mortimer Chapel in St Mary Magdalene, which is thought to have been completed around 1353, sparking the visit from King Edward III. However, chantry chapels don’t normally contain choir stalls and the heraldry in their carvings suggests that they were created at a later date. Several bear the Antelope Gorged and Chained, a personal badge of the Lancastrian kings which can be found on the tomb of Henry V (1386 – 1422) at Westminster Abbey, but is most often associated with his son, Henry VI (1421 – 1471). It appears on many pilgrim badges for this king who was revered as a saint after his death, although he was never canonised.

Choir stall with Antelope Gorged and Chained

This would make the choir stalls of St Mary Magdalene contemporary to the first phase of misericords at St Laurence in Ludlow and indeed the Antelope Gorged and Chained is also found in Ludlow.

Misericord N6 in Ludlow

Moreover, like St Laurence, St Mary Magdalene also has an elaborately carved wooden ceiling whose roof bosses mirror some of the carvings on the choir stalls. However, unlike Ludlow the choir stalls and ceiling at Leintwardine lack any Yorkist symbolism. Or do they?

Choir stall with rose in ring

On two of the stalls is a carving which bears a striking resemblance to misericord S15 in Ludlow: a twisted ring, this one encircling a five-petaled rose. Roses are ubiquitous in medieval imagery and, according to a tourist guide for Shrewsbury, the twisted cord is a common motif in the Shropshire area, but the rose and ring motif is repeated on one of the roof bosses in the wooden ceiling where it occupies a prominent position on the central ridge, just like the falcon and fetterlock and rose within a fetterlock in Ludlow. It would therefore seem unlikely that the use of this motif is purely decorative.

Ceiling in Leintwardine with rose roof boss (click to enlarge)

But if it isn’t and if the choir stalls and ceiling date from the early or mid-15th century, then who commissioned and paid for them? The church’s main benefactors, the Mortimers, died out in the male line in 1425 and their heir Richard, duke of York was 14-year old lad who lived with his Neville in-laws in the North. Moreover, their rising political profile meant that they were increasingly absentee landlords with their last major building projects at Wigmore and Ludlow dating back to the 14th century. Indeed, a report from 1424 states that the abbey in which so many of their ancestors lay buried was in a sorry state and used by locals as a public toilet, which suggests that they hadn’t paid attention to it for some time. Did the local congregation raise the funds for the church or did the influence of the Ludlow Palmers who renovated St Laurence extend to Leintwardine? But if so, why is there no heraldic reference to the new lord as there is in Ludlow? The roses in rings on the choir stalls and ceiling are the only potentially Yorkist motifs in the whole church. The misericords were attacked with an axe during the Reformation, so perhaps some were lost, but the ceiling is fully preserved and doesn’t feature any falcons or fetterlocks.

Combining all of the above, the most likely explanation seems to be that the choir stalls and ceiling were commissioned for the chancel and nave of St Mary Magdalene where they are currently situated and installed after the accession of Henry V and before Richard, duke of York, who didn’t come into possession of all his estates as Duke of York, Earl of March and Lord Mortimer until 1432 and then appears to have focused his attention on Ludlow, had fully established himself as the new lord. So what of the roses?

The White Rose of Mortimer?

In the middle ages the rose was associated with Christ and the Virgin Mary and therefore popular as both decorative and heraldic emblem. As John Ashdown-Hill and others have noted, “Roses of three colours – white, gold and red – had certainly been used by various kings, queens, princes and princesses of the so-called Plantagenet royal family as badges since the thirteenth century.”7 These included Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, her son Edward I and Richard, duke of York’s uncle Edward, second Duke of York. But they were not the only ones. The seal of Edmund Mortimer, third Earl of March (1352 – 1381) showed his arms suspended from a rose bush in flower. Being a seal, the colour of the petals is unspecified, but C. W. Scott-Giles has claimed that the white rose was “originally a badge of the Mortimer earls of March, and was used by Earl Roger, who died in 1369”8 while Michael Powell Siddons reports that:

“A white rose is given in Writhe’s Garter Armorial as the badge of Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, a founder knight of the Order of the Garter, and a pedigree roll of Edward IV of 1461 shows that the rose was considered to have come to the House of York from the Mortimers, by descent from whom came their claim to the throne. This roll does not give a colour to this rose, and does not attribute any rose to the House of Lancaster. Another pedigree roll of Edward IV is freely decorated with the white rose en soleil, but without any indication as to which family it came from. Some later sources give the Mortimers’ badge as a rose per pale Argent and Gules. It is noteworthy that although the will of Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March, quoted below, mentions several items decorated with roses, none of these are white. In the lists of the badges of the Duke of York (sometimes given as those of Edward IV), the earliest of which probably date from before 1460, the white rose is given as a badge for the castle of Clifford, which came to the House of York through the second marriage of Richard, Earl of Cambridge (exec. 1415), with Maud, daughter of Thomas, Lord Clifford.”9

Indeed, the contemporary list of heraldic badges used by Richard, duke of York which associates the sunburst with Richard II also associates the white rose with Clifford Castle. Unfortunately, how the rose badge came to be associated with the castle is unknown and the building itself offers no clues as it lies in ruins. However, the Maud Clifford who was the heiress of Clifford Castle married not Richard, earl of Cambridge, but first William Longespee, earl of Salisbury, and after his death John Giffard of Brimpsfield, after whose death in 1299 (!) it passed through her daughter Margaret, countess of Lincoln, to the earldom of Lincoln and then in the 14th century to the Mortimers of Wigmore.10 It therefore probably came to the house of York through Anne or Edmund Mortimer.

As descendants of both the Plantagenet royal family and the Mortimers the house of York could have inherited its rose badge from either or both these sources, but the absence of any Yorkist heraldry in Leintwardine and the fact that the red rose of Lancaster hadn’t been invented yet seems to suggest that the roses at St Mary Magdalene don’t refer to either Richard, duke of York or Henry VI. Moreover, John Ashdown-Hill has pointed out that, with the exception of one poem which must date from before 1460 since it mentions the Earl of Salisbury who died at the battle of Wakefield, in contemporary political poems the white rose of York “is not explicitly related to Richard, Duke of York, himself. Instead, York’s personal badge is generally referred to as the fetterlock. For example, a poem on the battle of Northampton (10 July 1460) speaks of ‘certeyne persones þt late exiled were, … þe Rose (Edward, Earl of March), þe Fetyrlok (Richard, Duke of York), þe Egle (Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury) and þe Bere (Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick)’.” Instead “the Yorkist rose often appears to have been seen specifically as the badge of Edward, Earl of March, eldest son of the Duke of York – the future King Edward IV” who wasn’t born until 1442, didn’t move to Ludlow until the 1450s and didn’t lay claim to the throne until after his father’s death in 1460.11 This would tie in with the presumed timing of the building work at St Mary Magdalene and the two stages of renovation at St Laurence’s. It therefore seems not unreasonable to suggest that the rose badge was originally used by the Mortimers and adopted by their Yorkist heirs around the time when Richard, duke of York began to lay claim to the throne of England.

Falcon and fetterlock with silver (white) rose, now oxidised, from the Edward IV Roll


The youthful years Edward IV spent with his brother in their household at Ludlow Castle seem to have left a deep impression on him since he established a similar routine for his own son, Edward V, and his daughter, Elizabeth of York, later followed the same pattern for her son, prince Arthur Tudor, whose heart is buried in St Laurence’s. Perhaps they also inspired him to brand the house of York by marrying a rose badge used by his Mortimer ancestors, including his father Richard, Duke of York, Earl of March and Lord Mortimer, with the sunburst of Richard II, just like Henry VII branded the Tudors by marrying the white rose of York to the (fictional) red rose of Lancaster. After all, he also adopted other Mortimer badges, such as the white lion of March which he kept using even after he had become king of England, for example on livery collars, and medieval nobles who, thanks to intermarriage, were often spoilt for choice when it came to arms and heraldic badges, usually chose to emphasise their most illustrious connections. In Edward’s case they would have been those upon whom he based his claim to the throne of England. As John Ashdown-Hill has concluded:

“If Edward IV did indeed derive his use of the white rose badge via his Mortimer ancestry, together with his claim to the throne, then his marrying of it with the sunburst emblem which had been a badge of Richard II, whether or not this was inspired by the triple sun phenomenon seen at the battle of Mortimer’s Cross, looks very much like a powerful legitimist statement in symbolic form.”12

Livery collar of suns and roses with the lion of March, tomb effigy of Sir Richard Herbert of Coldbrook, Abergavenny

I would like to thank the Mortimer History Society for their encouragement and patience with my many questions.

Sources & Further Reading:


  • David Lloyd, Ewart Carson & Don Beattie: “THE PARISH CHURCH OF ST LAURENCE, LUDLOW”, Ludlow Parochial Church Council (2014)

  • Philip Hume: “ON THE TRAIL OF THE MORTIMERS”, Logaston Press (2016)

  • John Challis: “WIGMORE ABBEY – THE TREASURE OF MORTIMER”, Wigmore Books (2016)

  • John Ashdown-Hill: “THE RED ROSE OF LANCASTER?”, The Ricardian, vol. 10 (June 1996), pp. 406–420

  • John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES”, Amberley Publishing (2015)

  • Thomas Penn: “HOW HENRY VII BRANDED THE TUDORS”, The Guardian (2 March 2012)

  • Laura Blanchard: “THE EDWARD IV ROLL – THE ROLL ONLINE”, Richard III Society American Branch


  1. Thomas Penn: “HOW HENRY VII BRANDED THE TUDORS”, The Guardian (2 March 2012) 

  2. C William Marx: “AN ENGLISH CHRONICLE 1377-1461”, Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales MS 21068 and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Lyell 34 
  3. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES”, Amberley Publishing (2015) 
  4. ARCHOEOLOGIA vol. xvii, p.226, citing Digby MSS No. 28, quoted in Caroline Halsted: “RICHARD III AS DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AND KING OF ENGLAND, volume 1, pp. 404-5 
  6. V. J. Scattergood: “POLITICS AND POETRY IN THE FIFTEENTH CENTURY”, Barnes & Noble (1971), p. 189 
  7. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES” 
  8. C. W. Scott-Giles: “SHAKESPEARE’S HERALDRY”, Heraldry Today (1971) 
  9. Michael Powell Siddons: “HERALDIC BADGES IN ENGLAND AND WALES”, Vol. II, part 1, Boydell Press (2009), p. 211. 
  11. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES” 
  12. John Ashdown-Hill: “THE RED ROSE OF LANCASTER?”, The Ricardian, vol. 10 (June 1996), p. 410 

The Trial That Should Have Happened in 1483

Putting aside the mystery of what ultimately happened to Edward IV’s two sons, one enduring difficulty for a student of history is whether Richard III used the proper legal procedure in having them declared illegitimate because of their father’s precontracted marriage to Eleanor Talbot.  The most (and only) significant defect appears to be the failure to refer the issue to a church court for determination.[1]  But it seems no one has fleshed out how an ecclesiastical tribunal would have litigated such an extraordinary and unprecedented matter, let alone identified which church court would have had authority to hear it.

As a retired litigator of 20 years, I undertook the challenge of researching medieval English church court procedures and precedent cases to answer four questions: Which church court would have decided the precontract issue? How would it have conducted the litigation? What evidence would it have heard? How conclusive would its decision have been?  They seemed like simple questions, but they were not. Along the way, I learned not only about the unique relationship of English church and state when it came to addressing marriage and inheritance matters, but also about a thicket of procedural issues that an ecclesiastical tribunal would have presented in 1483, the sum of which may help explain why it wasn’t referred there in the first place.

A Claim that Involved Both Canon and Secular Law

The Crowland Continuator wrote that Richard III’s title to the throne was first put forward on 26 June 1483 when he claimed for himself the government of the kingdom and ‘thrust himself’ into the marble chair at Westminster Hall.  The ‘pretext’ for his ‘intrusion’ was put forward by means of a supplication [petition] contained in a ‘certain parchment roll’ that Edward IV’s sons were bastards and incapable of succession, because their father had been precontracted to marry Lady Eleanor Butler [Talbot] before he married Elizabeth Woodville.  The children of George of Clarence were also excluded from succession because of their father’s attainder.


Philippe de Commynes

The Crowland Continuator gives us no other details about what debate, discussion, or proof was produced to support the allegation, except to suggest that the petition originated in the North and was written by someone in London.[2]  Dominic Mancini, who was living in London at the time, reported that certain ‘corrupted preachers of the divine word’ gave sermons about the illegitimacy of King Edward’s children, and that the duke of Buckingham supported those allegations by declaring the king had been precontracted to a foreign princess.[3]  Philippe de Commynes wrote in his ‘Memoirs’ that it was Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells, who came forward and gave evidence from his personal knowledge about the precontract to Lady Eleanor and its consummation.[4]  Ultimately, the Act of Succession known as Titulus Regius was enrolled in January 1484 during Richard III’s only parliament.[5]

Church courts were quite familiar with marital precontract claims and the resulting disinheritance of children, a scenario that seems to have arisen in pre-modern England with surprising regularity even in the lower social classes.  Professor R. H. Helmholz detailed the frequency of such claims in his book Marriage Litigation in Medieval England and determined that they out-numbered straightforward divorce cases.  The distant date of King Edward’s alleged precontract to Eleanor Talbot, and their inability to testify, although sounding suspicious or unfair to our modern sensibilities, were of no relevance.  There were no applicable statutes of limitations, and a precontract claim could be raised after the deaths of the putative spouses.  It was not unknown for someone to wait 20, 30 or even 50 years before enforcing a precontract or making a claim that a particular marriage was invalid. ‘This meant that established marriages could be upset by the stalest of [pre-]contracts.’[6]  Claims that sought to declare a child illegitimate because of his parents’ invalid marriage were also more commonplace than we often understand, an artifact of the complex system of marriage and consanguinity rules, and the way that marriages could be formed clandestinely with a simple statement of present intent (both parties saying ‘I agree to marry you’ was sufficient in church law).

church court

Church court

While church courts were endowed with the jurisdiction to determine whether a precontract existed or not, or whether someone’s children were illegitimate as a result, they had absolutely no power to determine who inherited their parents’ estate even if – and especially if — he was the potential king of England.  By the fifteenth century, English legal practice was especially clear on this concept:  the church courts only had jurisdiction to adjudicate who was a legitimate child from a legitimate marriage.  Once it determined that the child was born outside a legitimate marriage, then it was left entirely up to the secular arm to determine what he or she would inherit from their parents. This derived from a primitive notion of the separation of church and state, and the idea that the rights of inheritance derived exclusively from feudal law.  The Statute of Merton clearly made this point:  no bastard child could ever be an heir to his father’s estate as a matter of English feudal law.[7]  Therefore, it must be understood that even if the issue of the legitimacy of Edward IV’s children had ever been referred to a church court for determination, it had no power to say who should inherit the crown.  That would always be for secular English law to determine.

Which Ecclesiastical Venue?

The first conundrum in 1483 would have been what court or tribunal to refer the matter to. Each bishop had a ‘consistory court’ for the purpose of hearing cases involving marriage and bastardy, and other matters exclusively within church law jurisdiction.  Because of the volume of litigation, however, it was impossible for a bishop to attend to this function personally, therefore he appointed an ‘official’ or ‘commissary general’ to act as his representative in adjudicating disputes.  In many dioceses, the dean, archdeacon, or chapter would also have their own courts.  However, in matters involving elite personages or sensitive political issues, it was not uncommon for the bishop himself to mediate the dispute, as we can see from the bishop of Norwich’s personal involvement in trying to dissolve the scandalous marriage between Margery Paston and Richard Calle in 1469.

The consistory courts were staffed with judges, lawyers (‘proctors’) and barristers (‘advocates’), examiners to conduct witness interrogation, scribes, archivists (‘registrars’), and summoners (‘apparitors’ or ‘bedels’).  No one was required to have a law degree, but most had some formal education in canon or civil law, especially the judges.  Quite unlike common law English trials, there were no juries and no examination of live witnesses in open court.  Instead, judges based their verdicts solely on the review of offered documents and written depositions which contained the answers given by witnesses to questions (‘interrogatories’) put to them by the examiners.  Appeals could be taken either to the archbishop of Canterbury or of York, depending upon which Province the case had been filed in, or directly to the Pope via the Roman Curia.  The archbishop of Canterbury’s appellate court was called the Court of Arches, located at St Mary-le-Bow Church in London, and was considered the premier ecclesiastical court in England having both original and appellate jurisdiction.


Court of the Common Pleas

Notwithstanding this church court infrastructure, it seems highly unlikely that the 1483 allegation of precontract would have been referred to a bishop’s consistory court or even to the Court of Arches. The matter touched directly on the royal family and on whom would become the next king of England.  In looking for past precedents, the closest analogue is the ecclesiastical trial of Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey Duke of Gloucester. Cobham was married to the uncle and heir-presumptive to Henry VI, and was in line to be queen-consort if the king died without children.  In the summer of 1441, Cobham was implicated by members of her household in using magic to predict the death of the king.  An indictment was brought forward in the King’s Bench against the household servants, and they were charged with sorcery, felony, and treason.  Cobham was named as an accessory.  While the secular courts had jurisdiction over charges of treason and felony, the church courts had jurisdiction over matters of heresy and witchcraft.

Rather than refer the matter to a bishop’s consistory court, the king’s council selected a group of prelates to act as an ecclesiastical tribunal to determine the truth of the allegations against Cobham and her punishment.  No doubt this was done because of the shocking political implications of accusing the heir-presumptive’s wife of treasonable sorcery. The panel included the archbishops of Canterbury and York, the cardinal-bishop of Winchester, the bishop of Bath and Wells, the bishop of Lincoln, the bishop of London, and the bishop of Norwich.  Most of these men were also part of the king’s secular government.  Bishop Stafford of Bath and Wells was the king’s Chancellor.  Cardinal Beaufort of Winchester, Archbishop Kemp of York, and Bishop Alnwick of Lincoln all currently sat on the royal council.  Beaufort and Kemp, in particular, were known antagonists and opponents of Gloucester and his wife, and many saw the panel’s work as nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to destroy them and their political faction.[8]

Similarly, the political dimensions in 1483 were far too enormous to refer the matter of the princes’ illegitimacy to a single prelate or his court.  (And what bishop would have wanted to have sole responsibility to decide such an inflammatory issue?)  Therefore, if Cobham’s case is any precedent, it would seem that the only appropriate way to do so would have been for the royal council, of which the Lord Protector was the chief, to summon a group of prelates and men learned in canon law to hear it.  And, just like the Cobham case, the membership on that panel could be perceived as having partisan agendas and rendering a biased decision.

How Would a Church Court Conduct the Litigation?

Church court procedure was usually divided into three stages:  an opening hearing, the taking of evidence, and the reading of a judgment.  The first stage required the party asserting the allegation of precontract to appear in person or by a proctor, in order to recite the specifics of the ‘citation’ or claim.  The second stage involved the witnesses being identified by name and sworn in, and then taken outside of court to be interrogated separately and in private according to questions prepared by the parties and the judge.  The testimony of each witness would be reduced to a written deposition, and then published (read aloud) on a date set by the judge.  At that time, witnesses could be challenged or ‘exceptions’ made to their character or testimony.  The last stage was for the judge to read all the depositions and review any documentary evidence, and then arrive at a decision.  The parties could argue through their advocates that their side was the correct one, and even submit legal briefs to support their case.  The judge was given wide latitude to arrive at whatever conclusion he deemed compliant with substantive canon law.  He was not required to explain the reasons supporting his decision, and could proceed to a separate hearing on what punishment was appropriate under church doctrine.  From the first hearing to the final judgment, the average lifespan of a typical marriage case was around 5-7 months.[9]

Would an ecclesiastical tribunal have followed this general procedure in 1483, and if so, would we have had the benefit of written depositions from Stillington or any other witnesses who would have testified about the precontract?  To the latter question, the short answer is probably no.  There exist no witness depositions or transcripts from Eleanor Cobham’s ecclesiastical trial, only the indictment filed against her servants in the King’s Bench records (what we do know about the Cobham trial comes from The Brut, and other London chronicles, not from official court or church records).  Nevertheless, her case was generally divided into these three stages. After fleeing to Westminster Abbey for sanctuary, Cobham was cited to appear at St Stephen’s Chapel where she was examined on several points of felony and treason, which she strenuously denied, and was allowed to return to sanctuary.  The next day, she was summoned to hear the incriminating testimony of a witness against her; she confessed to some of the charges and was transferred to Leeds Castle in Kent.  A secular criminal law investigation was conducted into the three household servants, and it was determined that they – and Cobham — had celebrated a mass using elements of necromancy and sorcery in order to predict the death of Henry VI, an act of treason.

Cobham was next hauled before the ecclesiastical tribunal at St Stephen’s Chapel four months later, for the purpose of sentencing.  Archbishop Chichele of Canterbury begged illness from this event, and therefore it was Adam Moleyns, clerk to the royal council, who read the articles of sorcery, necromancy, and treason to her.  Cobham again vociferously denied the charges but admitted to using potions to conceive a child with Humphrey.  Several days before issuing a sentence, the ecclesiastical panel forcibly divorced Cobham from her husband.  What due process was used to work the divorce is not recorded.  Certainly, it was not initiated by Humphrey, and under canon law there were no grounds for divorce if one of the spouses fell into heresy.[10]  Cobham’s sentencing hearing came a few days later, and she was given the punishment of walking penitent at three public market days.  Thenceforth, she never left the king’s strict custody and is believed to have died at Beaumaris, Wales, in 1452, five years after Humphrey.[11]


The Penance of Eleanor Cobham, by Edwin Austin Abbey (1900)

While not a perfect analogue, the Cobham case is instructive as to how a hypothetical ecclesiastical tribunal would have litigated the precontract issue in 1483.  It would have had an initial hearing when the charge was announced, then it would have received witness testimony, and then it would have had announced its decision after review of the evidence. Elizabeth Woodville’s presence would not have been required but she could have had a proctor there to represent her interests.[12]  Of course, there would have been no jury, and none of the safeguards that juries ostensibly brought to secular litigation.  Those sitting on the tribunal would not have heard live testimony nor observed the demeanor of those testifying; they would have relied on recorded depositions.  There would have been no requirement for a reasoned opinion describing the rationale for the decision.  And there would have been no sentencing hearings, since the only role for this tribunal would have been to answer one question about the precontract’s existence.  The matter would then be returned to the secular courts, including Parliament, for further consideration.

What type of evidence would have been received?

One was required to produce documentary evidence and/or witness testimony to substantiate a claim in the church courts.  Documentary evidence was almost unheard of in marriage cases, and even it if had been produced, forgery was so common that it was often looked at as being less weighty than oral testimony.[13]  If resting solely on witness testimony, then the case could be proven with only two people who were able to testify from direct observation or other reliable information.  The ‘two-witness rule’ was formulated in pre-Christian classical Rome as full proof (‘probatio plena’) and was absorbed into church doctrine based on certain passages in the Bible.  Hearsay was not excluded.  In a 1443 case from the Rochester diocese, for example, the church court allowed the testimony of John North who said that William Gore told him of seeing a marriage contracted between Alice Sanders and John Resoun.[14]  Proof of long cohabitation and children being born to a couple were not relevant except to prove sexual intercourse.  Beyond that, what sentimental force it had on the judge is hard to say, certainly less than it would today. The validity of a marriage depended on the existence of a marriage contract, not on the birth of children. What was more relevant to church courts were the relative social statuses of the parties involved, as can be seen in a 1419 case where a woman lost her precontract case because the putative husband introduced witnesses to show that he was of a far superior social station.[15]

Since marriage cases often turned exclusively on the testimony of two people, we find paradoxes and difficulties, and cases involving collusion and fraud.  Helmholz recounts a case from York where Alice Palmer had married Geoffrey Brown and lived with him for four years.  The union was not a happy one as Geoffrey physically abused Alice.  As a result, Alice and her father found another young man, Ralph Fuler, and gave him gifts (i.e. bribes) so that he would say that he had contracted marriage with the said Alice before any contract and solemnization of marriage had occurred between Alice and Geoffrey. ‘This stratagem worked. Alice and Geoffrey were divorced. The whole matter came to light only some years later, after Geoffrey had in fact married another girl.  Alice then sued to annul the previous judgment and get him back.’[16]  Helmholz also recounts coming across a few isolated cases where an affirmative judgment was based on the testimony of a lone witness rather than the two required.[17]

For this reason, John Fortescue wrote about the inanity and corruption of the ‘two-witness rule’, saying that it was clearly inferior to the English common law system which required a jury of 12 good men to attest to the truth of the facts presented by the prosecution.  To prove his point, Fortescue used the example of someone entering into a valid clandestine marriage, walking away from that, and then marrying someone else in a public ceremony to which two witnesses could testify in a court, and none to the clandestine marriage.  The Roman law requiring two witnesses in this situation, according to Fortescue, would condemn the person to live in perpetual adultery with the second wife.[18]  But two witnesses were all that was required in the ecclesiastical courts, and that is all that would have been required in 1483 to prove the precontract, and thus the princes’ illegitimacy.

court in session

Medieval court in session

If Phillipe de Commynes was accurate, then we already know the identity of one witness:  Robert Stillington, bishop of Bath and Wells, and former chancellor to Edward IV.  And this is significant because the ‘two-witness rule’ had numerous exceptions.  William Durantis, the medieval procedural encyclopedist, managed to elucidate thirty of them.  Most were created for situations in which it would be expected and natural for only one witness to observe an event (a father, for instance, testifying that his son had been coerced into becoming a monk was sufficient to prove that fact).  Other exceptions rested on the quality of the witness.  The testimony or word of the Pope or other high clergyman, for instance, could alone prove a fact in the church courts.[19]  In a strict sense, the testimony of a sitting bishop and former Chancellor, coming from a high clergyman about a clandestine marriage that he personally observed, could have fallen into one of these exceptions to the rule and it alone might have been deemed full proof of the precontract.

Aside from the requirement of two witnesses and its exceptions, the church courts applied a somewhat mechanical system for sorting out qualified from unqualified, and believable from unbelievable, testimony.  The parties themselves could not testify as they were deemed partial to their side of the case.  For the same reason, the parties’ servants, friends, and relatives, were deemed unqualified to testify.  Heretics and believers who were in the state of mortal sin could not testify at all.  Rank in the nobility or clergy merited a witness superior credit, rich man prevailed over poor, Christian over Jew.[20]  Had Bishop Stillington, or another high clergyman, testified in front of an ecclesiastical tribunal in 1483, then his testimony would have been accorded the highest evidentiary weight possible under the rubrics set out by canon law.

But what about the duke of Buckingham and the preachers who were making public statements in 1483 about the princes’ illegitimacy? Could they have testified in a canon court?  The answer seems to be in the affirmative.  As shown above, the fact that none were present at the time of the precontract would not necessarily bar their testimony since there was no strict rule against hearsay.  The problem rests in what they were saying, which suggested different grounds for the princes’ illegitimacy (the duke saying that Edward IV was precontracted to a foreign princess, and the preachers saying it was because Edward IV himself was a bastard).  Under canon law, full proof required two witnesses providing the same basic facts, not two different scenarios for invalidating a marriage.

There is also Mancini’s insinuation that the preachers were ‘corrupt’ in some manner, and even a suggestion by Commynes that Stillington had some sort of personal baggage when he was briefly sent to the Tower in 1478.  Canon law permitted any witness, even a clergyman, to be impugned and ignored if they were shown to be of bad character.  That required proof, too, not mere suspicion, and there was no mechanism to cross-examine witnesses directly.  One had to produce evidence, usually in the form of another witness, to show that someone was unqualified.  According to Professor Charles Donahue, English church courts were often more lax about this than they should have been.  He found several cases in which the court proceeded to sentencing without regard to the fact that the witnesses on the winning side were objectionable.  In a precontract case, Cecilia Wright c. John Birkys, Cecilia successfully petitioned for a divorce of John from his current wife, Joanna, on the ground that John had previously promised to marry Cecilia and had had intercourse with her.  Cecilia produced only two witnesses, one of servile condition, the other Cecilia’s sister and the wife of the other witness.  ‘Probably neither witness was admissible under the academic law.  Yet despite uncontradicted testimony as to the status and the witness’s admission of the relationship, Cecilia prevailed in two courts.’[21]

Such cases suggested to Professor Donahue that in English church court practice, there was no automatic bar to the consideration of anyone’s testimony.  Indeed, he concluded ‘there is no case of which I am aware in which a party lost because some or all of the witnesses necessary to make up his case proved to be incapable of testifying under canon law’.[22]  It has led modern historians to say that the church courts were often deciding marriage cases based on ‘evidence that was seldom sufficiently verified’ and that ‘some judges appear to have bent the law to fit their normal, and sensible, prejudices’.[23]

How conclusive would the decision have been?

Once the ecclesiastical tribunal had decided the issue of the precontract, the matter would be returned to the secular courts to determine whether the children could inherit under English law.  A certificate of legitimacy or bastardy coming from the Church could not be challenged in any subsequent lawsuit, even if it involved different parties, facts, or issues.[24]  This was the general rule, although Helmholz found cases where English secular judges disobeyed the church court’s decision when it would have worked an inequity or a violation of English law.  They were particularly sensitive to church intrusion into matters involving inheritance.  In a case from 1337, for example, it was pleaded that the plaintiff was a bastard by reason of birth before his parents’ marriage.  The plaintiff countered by showing the record of a bishop’s certificate from a previous decision testifying to his legitimacy.  The court, however, refused to accept it as conclusive.  As Judge Shareshull said, ‘I cannot have this answer because with it a man would gain inheritance against the law of the land.’[25]  Shareshull would later become Edward III’s chief justice in 1350.

st mary le bow

St-Mary-le-Bow Church, London, designed by Christopher Wren.

Less certain is whether any appeal could have been made to the Pope.  Since the matter ultimately concerned inheritance law and feudal succession to the English throne, it seems unlikely.  Certainly, Elizabeth Woodville and her allies did not take up any appeal to the Roman Curia after her sons by Edward IV were declared illegitimate by the three estates.  Such an effort, in any case, might have arguably violated the Statutes of Praeminure enacted during the reigns of Edward III and Richard II.  They forbade Englishmen and women to pursue in Rome or in the ecclesiastical courts any matter that belonged properly before the king’s courts, including ‘any other things whatsoever which touch the king, against him, his crown and his regality, or his realm’. There were strict penalties for doing so.[26]


The decision not to refer the issue of the princes’ alleged bastardy to a church court will always remain one of the criticisms of how Richard III came to the throne.  As shown above, there were serious procedural dilemmas, such as how to properly constitute an authoritative ecclesiastical tribunal and how such a tribunal would have managed the hearing of a politically divisive claim.  Even more difficult to predict is whether the church tribunal would have accepted a lowered burden of proof of just one eyewitness’s testimony to the precontract or would have sought out additional witnesses.  In the final analysis, these matters of procedure do not dictate the outcome.  As long as there was credible proof of the precontract, strict church law would have bastardized the offspring of the bigamous parents.  English secular law did not soften this result, and indeed, militated against such children from inheriting their father’s estate.  The ultimate question is whether the English public would have found an ecclesiastical tribunal to satisfy their notions of due process, or whether they would have seen it merely as a handmaiden to a political coup d’etat.  It seems safe to say that we’d still be debating the merits and propriety of Richard III’s accession to the crown regardless of the juridical mechanisms employed, even if those mechanisms followed the precise letter of canon law.

Related Posts

“Debunking The Myths – How Easy Is It To Fake A Precontract?”


[1] R. H. Helmholz, “Bastardy Litigation in Medieval England,” American Journal of Legal History, Vol. XIII (1969), pp. 360-383 and R. H. Helmholz, “The Sons of Edward IV: A Canonical Assessment of the Claim that they were Illegitimate,” Richard III Loyalty, Lordship and Law, P.W. Hammond (ed.) (1986).

[2] Nicholas Pronay & John Cox (eds.), The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486 (Allan Sutton, London, 1986), pp. 158-161.

[3] C. A. J. Armstrong (trans.), The Usurpation of Richard the Third by Dominicus Mancinus (Oxford Univ. Press, 1936), pp. 116-121.

[4] ‘In the end, with the assistance of the bishop of Bath, who had previously been King Edward’s Chancellor before being dismissed and imprisoned (although he still received his money), on his release the duke carried out the deed which you shall hear described in a moment.  This bishop revealed to the duke of Gloucester that King Edward, being very enamoured of a certain English lady, promised to marry her, provided that he could sleep with her first, and she consented.  The bishop said that he had married them when only he and they were present.  He was a courtier so he did not disclose this fact but helped to keep the lady quiet and things remained like this for a while.  Later King Edward fell in love again and married the daughter of an English knight, Lord Rivers.  She was a widow with two sons.’  Michael Jones (trans. & ed.), Philippe de Commynes “Memoirs”, 1461-83 (Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 353-54.

[5] Rosemary Horrox (ed.), The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504, Vol. XV Richard III 1484-85 (Boydell, London, 2005), pp. 13-18.

[6] There was no preference by canon law courts favoring the ‘settled’ or ‘long-standing’ marriage over the mere contract by words. R. H. Helmholz, Marriage Litigation in Medieval England (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1974), pp. 57-59, 62-64.

[7] Helmholz, Bastardy Litigation, pp. 381-383. The Statute of Merton was passed during Henry III’s reign in 1235, and provided in part, that ‘He is a bastard that is born before the marriage of his parents’.  The parents’ subsequent marriage did not alter the status of bastardy.

[8] Ralph A. Griffiths, “The Trial of Eleanor Cobham: An Episode in the Fall of Duke Humphrey of Gloucester”, King and Country: England and Wales in the Fifteenth Century (Hambledon, London, 1991), pp. 233-252.

[9] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, pp.  124-140, 113-115.

[10] Pierre Payer (trans.), Raymond of Penyafort’s Summa on Marriage (Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 2005), pp. 53, 80-81.  In Title X, Dissimilar Religion, Penyafort states that when believers contract marriage between themselves and afterwards one falls into heresy or the error of unbelief, the one who is abandoned cannot remarry.

[11] Griffiths, Eleanor Cobham’s trial.

[12]Brian Woodcock, Medieval Ecclesiastical Courts in the Diocese of Canterbury (London, 1952), pp. 83-85.

[13]James A. Brundage, Medieval Canon Law (Longmans, London, 1995), pp. 132-133.

[14] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, pp. 131-132.

[15] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, pp. 132-133.

[16] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, p. 162.

[17] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, pp. 228-232.

[18] Shelly Lockwood (ed.), Sir John Fortescue: On the Laws and Governance of England (Cambridge Univ Press, 1997).

[19] R. H. Helmholz, “The Trial of Thomas More and the Law of Nature”, tmstudies/Helmholz2008.pdf [7/3/08], pp 9-10, FN 31.

[20] Mauro Cappelletti & Joseph M. Perillo, Civil Procedure in Italy (Columbia Univ., 1965), pp. 34-35, footnote 139 cites the Decretals of Gregory IX, Liber Extra, title XX de testibus et attestationabus, cap. XXVIII.

[21]Charles Donahue, Jr., “Proof by Witnesses in the Church Courts of Medieval England: An Imperfect Reception of the Learned Law”, in Morris S. Arnold, Thomas A. Green, Sally Scully, and Stephen White, ed., On the Laws and Customs of England: Essays in Honor of Samuel E. Thorne (North Carolina Univ. Press, 1981), pp. 127–154 and p. 147, footnote 89, citing case from York, Borthwick Institute, CP.E. 103, 1367-69.

[22] Donahue, Proof by Witnesses, p. 147.  It should be noted that Donahue’s research focused on the 13th and 14th centuries, but Helmholz’s research did not reveal any different trends in the 15th century.

[23] Helmholz, Marriage Litigation, pp. 61-62, citing Lacy, Marriage in Church & State, and p. 66.

[24] Helmholz, Bastardy Litigation, p. 373.

[25] Helmholz, Bastardy Litigation, p. 374.

[26] 27 Edw.III st. 1, c. 1, 38 Edw. III st. 2, cc. 1-4, 16 Rich.II c. 5.  Richard Burn, Ecclesiastical Law, Vol. II (9th ed., 1842) pp. 37-39.

Richard III And The Tudor Genealogy

It is generally acknowledged by historians that Henry Tudor, who defeated Richard III, the last Yorkist king, at Bosworth and went on to be crowned Henry VII, wasn’t the Lancastrian heir to the throne of England he claimed to be. His mother, Margaret Beaufort, was descended from John of Gaunt, the third surviving son of Edward III, but through an illegitimate line which, although it had been legitimised in the 1390s, was subsequently barred from the throne by the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV, Gaunt’s only surviving legitimate son by his first wife, Blanche of Lancaster. Moreover Gaunt had inherited the title Duke of Lancaster from Blanche’s father and the Beauforts were descended from his mistress Katherine Swynford, so had none of Blanche’s blood. After the deaths of Henry VI and his only son Edward (the first husband of Anne Neville, Richard’s queen) in 1471, the senior Lancastrian heirs to the throne of England were the kings of Portugal through Gaunt’s eldest legitimate daughter Philippa, followed by the descendants of his other legitimate children. Henry Tudor’s father Edmund, first earl of Richmond, was Henry VI’s half brother, but through their mother, the French princess Catherine of Valois. Edmund’s father Owen Tudor was a Welsh courtier, so Edmund had no royal English blood at all. Or did he?

Were The Tudors Really Tudors?

So asked popular historian Dan Jones in an article on History Extra, the website of BBC History Magazine, entitled “The 5 greatest mysteries behind the Wars of the Roses”. In it he describes the “foggy” origins of the Tudor dynasty:

“Their first connection to the English crown came through Henry VII’s grandmother, Catherine de Valois, widow of Henry V and mother of Henry VI. As dowager queen Catherine had caused quite a stir by secretly marrying her lowly servant, Owen Tudor. Plenty of romantic rumours have swirled around that union, but whatever the case, during the early 1430s Catherine gave birth to several children who took the Tudor name, most notably Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor, and another boy named Jasper Tudor.”1

So far, so factual. However, he then goes on to question the paternity of Edmund, Catherine’s eldest son:

“It has been speculated that Catherine’s marriage to the lowly Owen Tudor was contracted to cover up her politically dangerous relationship with Edmund Beaufort. In that case, is it possible that Edmund Tudor was not a Tudor at all, but was actually given the forename of his real father?”

Jones is not the first historian to raise this possibility. In his entry on Edmund Beaufort, first duke of Somerset, in the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY Colin Richmond mused:

”It seems unlikely that Edmund Beaufort would have taken so great a political risk as getting the queen dowager with child, but he was a dashing young man (recently released from prison) as well as a Beaufort, and Catherine, who had fulfilled the only role open to her by immediately producing a son for the Lancastrian dynasty, was a lonely Frenchwoman in England, and at thirty or thereabouts was, the rumour ran, oversexed. Many stranger things have happened, and the idea of renaming sixteenth-century England is an appealing one.”2

Jones and Richmond both quote Gerald Harriss, who noted in his book “CARDINAL BEAUFORT: A STUDY OF LANCASTRIAN ASCENDANCY AND DECLINE”:

“By its very nature the evidence for Edmund ‘Tudor’s’ parentage is less than conclusive, but such facts as can be assembled permit the agreeable possibility that Edmund ‘Tudor’ and Margaret Beaufort ie Edmund Tudor’s wife and Henry VII’s mother were first cousins and that the royal house of ‘Tudor’ sprang in fact from Beauforts on both sides.”3

In his entry on Catherine of Valois in the OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, Michael Jones too pondered the possibility, but remained unconvinced:

”Many later legends developed to explain their remarkable romance: that Owen had been in Henry V’s service in the wars in France or in the royal household, that he had first attracted attention by falling into the queen’s lap in an inebriated state at a dance or when she and her ladies had espied him swimming, but nothing is certainly known to explain the start of their relationship. … The naming of their first child, Edmund Tudor, has also led to serious speculation on whether Henry VII, Edmund Tudor’s son, descended from Beauforts on both sides of his pedigree, though this seems improbable.”4

John Ashdown-Hill, on the other hand, has suggested that not only Edmund, but also his younger brother Jasper may have been fathered by Edmund Beaufort and dedicated an entire chapter in his book “ROYAL MARRIAGE SECRETS” to examining the possibility.5

Here at Ricardian Loons we are big fans of questioning the consensus, so let’s take a look at the evidence these historians have cited to support it. Do Dan Jones et al have a point?

The Claim

The father of Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, was not Owen Tudor, as is generally accepted, but Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset – a descendant of Edward III via his third son, John of Gaunt, and his mistress and later wife, Katherine Swynford.

The Evidence

1. Historical Documentation

The principal evidence cited by all above mentioned historians is contemporary historical documentation, or lack thereof. In a nutshell:

“Intriguingly, shortly before Catherine became involved with Owen, there was a widespread suggestion that she was having an affair with Edmund Beaufort, the future duke of Somerset, who would be killed at the battle of St Albans in 1455. This rumour was taken so seriously that parliament took up the matter and issued a special statute restricting the right of queens of England to remarry.”6

What we do know is that in the Parliament of 1426 the Commons had petitioned the Chancellor, Edmund Beaufort’s uncle Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, to allow widowed queens of England to remarry a man of their choosing upon payment of a fine. As Michael Jones has pointed out, this most likely alluded to Catherine of Valois rather than to Joan of Navarre, who at this time was already in her fifties, and he, Dan Jones and Ashdown-Hill all interpret the petition, not unreasonably, as indicative of an affair between Catherine and Edmund Beaufort. Unfortunately for Catherine, the late king’s brothers John, Duke of Bedford, and Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, opposed the petition and the statute which was eventually passed in the Parliament of 1427 – 1428 ruled that widowed queens could only remarry with the consent of an adult king. Failure to obtain this consent would result in the husband forfeiting his property:

“Item, it is ordered and established by the authority of this parliament for the preservation of the honour of the most noble estate of queens of England that no man of whatever estate or condition make contract of betrothal or matrimony to marry himself to the queen of England without the special licence and assent of the king, when the latter is of the age of discretion, and he who acts to the contrary and is duly convicted will forfeit for his whole life all his lands and tenements, even those which are or which will be in his own hands as well as those which are or which will be in the hands of others to his use, and also all his goods and chattels in whosoever’s hands they are, considering that by the disparagement of the queen the estate and honour of the king will be most greatly damaged, and it will give the greatest comfort and example to other ladies of rank who are of the blood royal that they might not be so lightly disparaged.”7

Given that the king, Catherine’s son Henry VI, was still a child, this effectively made it impossible for her to remarry anytime soon. Despite this bill – or perhaps because of it – around 1430 she started a relationship with Owen Tudor, which resulted in a number of children. As Michael Jones notes:

”It has even been suggested that she may have taken Tudor as her husband to prevent her true love, Edmund Beaufort, suffering the penalties of the statute of 1428, since Owen had so few possessions to forfeit.”

The couple and their children lived away from court and it is generally assumed that the relationship remained secret until after Catherine’s death in 1437 when Owen was imprisoned for having married her without permission, although Michael Jones believes that the court must have known about it by May 1432 when Owen was given the rights of an Englishman to protect him from anti-alien legislation.

Crucially though, there is no written record of their marriage and the exact date, as well as the date of birth of their first child, Edmund, are unknown. It is this which has given rise to the speculation around Edmund’s paternity. As Richmond explains:

”Almost everything is obscure about a liaison that resulted in a parliamentary statute regulating the remarriage of queens of England, but it is just possible that another of its consequences was Edmund Tudor. It is all a question of when Catherine, to avoid the penalties of breaking the statute of 1427–8, secretly married Owen Tudor, and of when the association with Edmund Beaufort came to an end. Neither of these dates, as might be expected, is known; nor is the date of birth of Edmund Tudor.”

Ashdown-Hill goes further and questions whether they ever married at all. In addition to the documentation mentioned above, he presents several new pieces of evidence to support his idea.

Firstly, he alleges more than once that Edmund Beaufort didn’t marry Eleanor Beauchamp until after Catherine’s death in 1437.

Secondly, he points to the fact that at the time of the dissolution of the monasteries Edmund’s grandson, Henry VIII, rescued only the remains of his grandfather Edmund (and his sister Mary Tudor) from the churches where they had been buried, but not those of his great-grandfather Owen. He argues that this is because, if Edmund had been the son of Edmund Beaufort, then Henry would have had no real family connection with Owen.

His third piece of evidence is a proclamation made by Richard III against Henry Tudor, Edmund’s son, which claimed that he was of bastard descent. He argues that:

“If Richard was speaking of Henry’s maternal Beaufort descent then his use of the word bastard was not strictly accurate, since the Beauforts had been legitimised. However, if Richard III’s words were a veiled allusion to the belief that Henry VII’s father was the illegitimate son of Catherine of France by Edmund Beaufort, then his allegation of bastard descent, albeit unproven (and in those days unprovable), was possibly accurate.”

2. Heraldry

Ashdown-Hill’s fourth piece of evidence are the heraldic arms of Edmund Tudor and his younger brother Jasper. He believes they show that both boys were fathered not by Owen Tudor, but Edmund Beaufort:

“There is no written evidence available in the case of either Edmund or Jasper to help us resolve the question of paternity. Nevertheless, there is clear evidence of a different kind, though its significance has been hitherto overlooked. This evidence takes the form of heraldry. Coats of arms belong to individuals, not to families. Nevertheless the sons of an armigerous father are allowed to use versions of the father’s coat of arms, marked by some point of difference, called a mark of cadency. During the Plantagenet period marks of cadency sometimes took the form of a ‘bordure’ (coloured surround or border) added to the father’s arms. Thus, for example, Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the youngest son of Edward III and Philippa of Hainaut, bore his father’s arms with the addition of a silver (or white) bordure. Similarly, after his legitimisation, John Beaufort, the eldest son of John of Gaunt, bore the English royal arms, surrounded by a blue and silver (or white) bordure as a mark of cadency. This coat of arms was later inherited by Edmund Beaufort (see Plate 6). Sons of Edmund Beaufort would have been entitled to use the same arms, but with some change in the colour or design of the bordure. Owen Tudor also bore a coat of arms. However, it was nothing like the royal arms, and there was no reason why it should have been. Owen’s shield was red in colour, and bore a chevron coloured ermine, surrounded by three helms in white or silver (see Plate 5). If Edmund and Jasper Tudor were Owen Tudor’s sons they should have borne a version of the same coat of arms as their father, with some mark of difference – either a coloured bordure or a label. But, astonishingly, neither Edmund nor Jasper Tudor used arms remotely resembling those of Owen Tudor. Instead both brothers bore the royal arms with a blue bordure, marked in Edmund’s case with alternate golden martlets (heraldic birds) and fleurs de lis, and in Jasper’s case, with gold martlets only (see Plates 7 and 8). These coats of arms, which owed nothing whatever to the arms of Owen Tudor, were clearly derived from the arms of Edmund Beaufort. The blue and gold bordures of Edmund and Jasper Tudor were simply versions of the blue and white bordure of Edmund Beaufort, modified for cadency. Apart from this modification the three coats of arms were identical. The arms of Edmund and Jasper Tudor, which were entirely appropriate for putative sons of Edmund Beaufort (who would, via that paternity, have inherited some English royal blood), were wholly inappropriate for sons of Owen Tudor (who would have had no single drop of English royal blood in their veins). The whole purpose of medieval heraldry was to show to the world who one was. And the coats of arms of Edmund and Jasper Tudor proclaimed, as clearly as they could, that these two ‘Tudor’ sons of the queen mother were of English royal blood, while their bordures suggest descent from Edmund Beaufort. The only possible explanation seems to be that Beaufort was their real father.”

The arms of Owen Tudor

The Beaufort arms

The arms of Edmund Tudor

The arms of Jasper Tudor

 Does It Stack Up?

There can be no doubt that the marriage between Catherine of Valois and Owen Tudor was either secret or didn’t take place at all since, as noted above, the king who had to give his consent was only a child. The facts point to a secret marriage, which was not uncommon in the Middle Ages, even among the nobility. Interestingly, this includes the marriage of Edmund Beaufort and Eleanor Beauchamp which, as both Richmond and Ashdown-Hill point out, was only pardoned and granted recognition in 1438. However, Ashdown-Hill’s assertion that they didn’t marry until after Catherine’s death in 1437 is contradicted by Richmond, who claims that they married before 1436. Neither historian specifies his source, but several of their children are thought to have been born between 1431 and 1436, which suggests that they were indeed married by then (Eleanor’s first husband Thomas, Lord Ros, had died in 1430).

Secondly, it’s true that Henry VIII rescued only the remains of his grandfather Edmund at the dissolution of the monasteries, but not those of his great-grandfather Owen, but Ashdown-Hill admits himself that Henry “did very little to rescue any royal burials from the doomed churches”.

Thirdly, Ashdown-Hill is absolutely correct that it was inappropriate for the Tudor brothers to difference the royal arms of England – they had some claim to the royal French arms as their mother Catherine of Valois was the daughter of Charles VI of France, but they didn’t have any royal English blood. However Henry VI, the king who granted them their earldoms, was not only their half brother, but also weak and easily influenced. As John Watts has noted, “it is difficult to escape the conclusion that he simply endorsed all requests put before him. This was certainly the implication of various conciliar initiatives to stem the flood of royal generosity. It is also suggested by the preponderance of grants to those enjoying most continuous access to the king, by the tendency for grants to particular people to be concentrated on occasions when we know them to have been at Henry’s side, by the notorious royal propensity for granting the same thing more than once and by the developing practice of granting reversions once the original stock of patronage was exhausted.”8

For example, he granted the stewardship of the Duchy of Cornwall to both Sir William Bonville and the Earl of Devon, thereby starting the Bonville-Courtenay feud. Henry’s generosity appears to have also extended to titles. As Christine Carpenter has pointed out, “Buckingham himself owed his dukedom in 1444 to the elevation of nobles related to the royal house. The young Henry Beauchamp, earl of Warwick, also made duke in 1444, despite the absence of any blood relationship to the crown, was favoured in his brief period of adulthood from 1444 to 1446.”9

It’s easy to imagine Henry granting his half brothers not just earldoms, but also royal arms if they lobbied hard enough for it. They certainly appear to have been on good terms with him. They were appointed his advisors, endowed with lands and jointly granted the wardship and marriage of Margaret Beaufort, one of England’s wealthiest heiresses, whom Edmund eventually married.

Crucially though, at least two historical documents exist which name Owen Tudor as father of both Edmund and Jasper.

The first document is the Act of Parliament of 1454, which confirmed the charter creating them Earls and emphasises their close relationship to Henry VI:

“To the most excellent and most Christian prince our lord the king, we the commons of this your realm, most faithful subjects of your royal majesty, in your present parliament assembled; in order that there may be brought before the most perspicacious eyes of royal consideration the memory of the blessed prince, Queen Catherine your mother, by whose most famous memory we confess we are very greatly affected, chiefly because she was worthy to give birth by divine gift to the most handsome form and illustrious royal person of your highness long to reign over us, as we most earnestly hope, in glory and honour in all things; for which it is necessary to acknowledge that we are most effectively bound more fully than can be said not only to celebrate her most noble memory for ever, but also to esteem highly and to honour with all zeal, as much as our insignificance allows, all the fruit which her royal womb produced; considering in the case of the illustrious and magnificent princes, the lords Edmund de Hadham and Jasper de Hatfield, natural and legitimate sons of the same most serene lady the queen, not only that they are descended by right line from her illustrious womb and royal lineage and are your uterine brothers, and also that by their most noble character they are of a most refined nature – their other natural gifts, endowments, excellent and heroic virtues, and other merits of a laudable life and of the best manners and of probity we do not doubt are already sufficiently well known to your serenity – that you deign from the most excellent magnificence of your royal highness to consider most kindly how the aforesaid Edmund and Jasper, your uterine brothers, were begotten and born in lawful matrimony within your realm aforesaid, as is sufficiently well known both to your most serene majesty and to all the lords spiritual and temporal of your realm in the present parliament assembled, and to us; and on this, from the most abundant magnificence of royal generosity, with the advice and assent of the same lords spiritual and temporal, by the authority of the same to decree, ordain, grant and establish that the aforesaid Edmund and Jasper be declared your uterine brothers, conceived and born in a lawful marriage within your aforesaid realm, and denizens of your abovesaid realm, and not yet declared thus.”10

The Act clearly describes both Edmund and Jasper as ”legitimate” and “begotten and born in lawful matrimony” (“Edmundus & Jasper, Fratres vestri uterini, in legitimo matrimonio, infra Regnum vestrum predictum procreati & nati existunt”).

The second document is the proclamation made by Richard III on 28 June 1485 against Edmund’s son, Henry Tudor (later Henry VII), who was laying claim to Richard’s throne, which states that “the seid rebelles and traitours have chosyn to be there capteyn one Henry Tydder, son of Edmond Tydder, son of Owen Tydder, whiche of his ambicioness and insociable covetise encrocheth and usurpid upon hym the name and title of royall astate of this Realme of Englond, where unto he hath no maner interest, right, title, or colour, as every man wele knoweth; for he is discended of bastard blood bothe of ffather side and of mother side, for the seid Owen the graunfader was bastard borne, and his moder was doughter unto John, Duke of Somerset, son unto John, Erle of Somerset, sone unto Dame Kateryne Swynford, and of ther indouble avoutry (adultery) gotyn.” It also condemns “Jasper Tydder, son of Owen Tidder, calling himself Earl of Pembroke”.11 It’s unclear if this is the proclamation Ashdown-Hill refers to as evidence for Edmund’s illegitimacy as he doesn’t specify his source, but here Richard clearly names Owen Tudor as father of both Edmund and Jasper and the allegation of illegitimacy actually refers to Owen’s paternity, not theirs.

Ashdown-Hill – and indeed all proponents of the Beaufort paternity – also overlooks the fact that, if Edmund’s father had been Edmund Beaufort, then not only would Henry Tudor’s father have been illegitimate, but his parents would have been first cousins and married without the papal dispensation required for this degree of consanguinity as his mother was Margaret Beaufort, only daughter of John, Duke of Somerset. Given that Henry was laying claim to the throne of England it would have been in Richard’s interest to draw attention to this arguably even greater flaw in Henry’s pedigree, but he didn’t.

One last possibility remains: could Edmund and Jasper have sneakily differenced the Beaufort arms and passed them off as royal arms? Technically yes and it is interesting that the bordure Azure on both Edmund’s and Jasper’s arms is charged with martlets Or since the arms posthumously attributed to Edward the Confessor are Azure, a cross flory between five martlets, all Or, while the fleurs-de-lys Or alternating with the martlets on Edmund’s bordure are clearly a reference to Catherine’s royal arms of France.

The Royal arms of England

The arms attributed to Edward the Confessor

The arms of Catherine of Valois

However, although they briefly sided with Richard, Duke of York against Henry VI in the early stages of the Wars of the Roses, which could be interpreted as a sign that their relationship with their half brother wasn’t as close as described in the petition to Parliament, there is no indication that their contemporaries suspected them to be the sons of Edmund Beaufort or that they coveted the throne for themselves. This was left to Edmund’s son Henry Tudor who, despite his flawed pedigree, initially claimed the English throne by “rightful claim, due and lineal inheritance”12 and in a letter by the French king Charles VIII to the town of Toulon was even described as Henry VI’s son.13 However, he never claimed to be the grandson of Edmund Beaufort. It could be argued that he didn’t need to as he had inherited the royal English blood of Edward III through his mother, Margaret Beaufort, but as the Beauforts were barred from the throne it is doubtful how strong this claim really was. It certainly didn’t impress Richard III, who dismissed them as bastards in his proclamation. Even Henry himself didn’t solely rely on his Beaufort credentials. He ultimately claimed the throne by right of conquest and then married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter of Richard’s brother, Edward IV.


It’s unlikely that Edmund Tudor was the son of Edmund Beaufort. Richard III’s proclamation clearly identifies both him and his brother Jasper as the sons of Owen Tudor and Henry VI’s Act of Parliament refers to them as legitimate. While Henry was a weak king who could have been influenced by his half brothers, this can’t be said about Richard. On the contrary, his proclamation is credible not only because it corroborates Henry’s narrative, but because it does so against his own interest of exploiting the flaws in Henry Tudor’s pedigree. As the man who established the College of Arms and, prior to this accession to the throne, active soldier and long-serving Constable of England and therefore presiding judge of the Court of Chivalry, Richard would have been ideally placed to spot evidence of an illicit affair between Catherine of Valois and Edmund Beaufort in Edmund and Jasper Tudor’s arms, but he said nothing. He wasn’t shy when it came to accusing his enemies of misdeeds – aside from rubbishing Henry’s pedigree he claimed that his supporters were murderers, adulterers and extortionists who would commit the “most cruell murders, slaughterys, and roberys, and disherisons that ever were seen in eny Cristen reame” should they succeed in their attempt to topple him14 – so why keep silent about a prohibited degree of consanguinity?

The logical conclusion has to be that Catherine and Owen really were married, albeit secretly, and that Edmund and Jasper really were their sons. The most likely explanation for their inappropriate coats of arms is that they were a result of being on good terms with Henry VI, if not active lobbying on their part. As Ashdown-Hill himself points out, “the whole purpose of medieval heraldry was to show to the world who one was”, so why bear the differenced arms of a Welsh courtier if you can bear those of a king?

Sources & Further Reading

  1. Dan Jones: “The 5 greatest mysteries behind the Wars of the Roses”, History Extra website (7 January 2016)
  2. Colin Richmond, “Beaufort, Edmund, first duke of Somerset (c.1406–1455)”, OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY (2008)
  4. Michael Jones, “Catherine (1401–1437)”, OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY (2008)
  5. John Ashdown-Hill, “ROYAL MARRIAGE SECRETS”, The History Press (2013)
  6. Dan Jones: “The 5 greatest mysteries behind the Wars of the Roses”, History Extra website (7 January 2016)
  7. The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504, Scholarly Digital Editions; CD-ROM edition (2005)
  8. John Watts, “HENRY VI AND THE POLITICS OF KINGSHIP”, Cambridge University Press (1999), p. 154
  9. Christine Carpenter, “THE WARS OF THE ROSES: POLITICS AND THE CONSTITUTION IN ENGLAND, C.1437-1509, Cambridge University Press (2008), p. 106
  10. The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, 1275-1504, Scholarly Digital Editions; CD-Rom edition (2005)
  11. James Gairdner (ed.), “THE PASTON LETTERS”, London 1872-5 (3 vols), vol. 3, pp. 316—20, cited by P. W. Hammond and Anne F. Sutton, “RICHARD III: THE ROAD TO BOSWORTH FIELD”, Constable (1985), pp. 208-10
  12. British Library Harleian MS 787, f.2, cited by Annette Carson, “RICHARD III: THE MALIGNED KING”, The History Press (2013), p. 284
  13. “Fils du feu rey Enry d’Angleterre”, A. Spont, “La marine française sous le règne de Charles VIII”, REVUE DES QUESTIONS HISTORIQUES, new series, II (1894), p. 393, cited by Annette Carson, “RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND”, Imprimis Imprimatur (2015), p. 40
  14. “PASTON LETTERS”, vol. 3, pp. 316—20, cited by P. W. Hammond and Anne F. Sutton, “RICHARD III: THE ROAD TO BOSWORTH FIELD”, Constable (1985), pp. 208-10

Tales of a Ricardian Traveler: A Visit to King’s Cliffe Church and its Fotheringhay Artifacts

Lady on Horseback

Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

My husband and I had the good fortune to spend two weeks in England and Wales in October, 2017. I had been asked to moderate a conference about Richard III and 15th century warfare at the Leicester Guildhall, sponsored by the Richard III Foundation. During our stay in Leicester, we drove into Northamptonshire in order to explore a small parish church at King’s Cliffe that purported to have a number of objects from Richard III’s birthplace of Fotheringhay. What we discovered surpassed all our expectations.

Scene of Destruction: St Mary and All Saints Church

Like many tales of discovery, this one begins with a tale of loss. The year was 1566. Queen Elizabeth I was on progress through her realm, having already occupied the throne for 8 years. Her itinerary took her to Fotheringhay Castle, a short distance from the parish church dedicated to St Mary and All Saints. A romantic version of the story says she visited St Mary’s and saw (with horror) a number of desecrated and shattered tombs, including those of her ancestors — the second Duke of York, the third Duke of York, his Duchess Cecily, and their son Edmund Earl of Rutland.

The choir in which they had been buried had been ransacked during Henry VIII’s program to dissolve monastic houses, chantries, and collegiate churches. The Queen allegedly expressed disgust at the lack of respect shown towards the burial monuments of her Yorkist ancestors, so she set up a commission to assess and “renovate” the damage. During that process, the choir was torn down, her ancestors’ remains were removed to the nave, and two grand 16th-century style monuments were erected over the relocated burials. According to this version of the story, Elizabeth I is portrayed as a magnanimous benefactor and savior of Fotheringhay’s church and its royal burials.

Like all good tales, there is a lot about this story that is more fiction than fact. In 1560, Elizabeth I had been forced to bring a proclamation to halt attacks on tombs and royal monuments in the wake of her father’s legislation requiring the destruction of religious imagery. It is unlikely that she personally visited Fotheringhay’s church in 1566 and more likely that she heard about its parlous condition from local Northamptonshire gentry at whose manors she had been accommodated during her royal progress. If she had been appalled or disgusted, it did not prompt her to act urgently as it wasn’t until 1572 that steps were taken to deal with the matter.

The parishioners, who were invited to weigh in, wanted to keep the choir. They submitted a report showing that it could be repaired for about Ł52. They volunteered to assume the expenses of maintaining it thereafter. Although they agreed that the Lady Chapel to the east of the choir was beyond repair and should be demolished, it was determined that the materials from its rubble could be sold for Ł94 6s 0d. This, they said, had the added benefit of allowing the tombs of the Queen’s ancestors to remain undisturbed in their original locations.

The Queen’s commissioners, however, submitted a very different report, concluding that the entire eastern part of the church, including the choir, Lady Chapel, and their aisles, was unsalvageable and would cost more than Ł100 to repair.   The salvage value of its materials, they determined, would bring in Ł252. Ironically, their assessment proved that the walls of the choir, Lady Chapel, and aisles were structurally sound, and their wood and lead roofs still intact, as they determined that lead salvaged from the demolishment would fetch Ł200. No mention, however, is made of any monuments to be built over the relocated Yorkist tombs; it seems the commissioners envisioned iron grates being erected around them. The total cost of removing and re-siting the burials was estimated at about Ł10.

Ultimately, it was the plan of the Queen’s commissioners that won out. The entire eastern part of St Mary’s church was demolished in 1573. The sale of lead, timber, doors, glass, and loads of stone is itemized together with the wages of the masons and laborers who built the wall closing off the nave. It is now believed that the Queen did not even pay for the monuments that now stand over her ancestors’ remains; rather, Sir Edmund Brudenell (one of the commissioners) likely retained a team of masons for their fabrication at his own expense. St Mary’s, once intended by the Yorkists to be a large and magnificent collegiate church with a master, 8 clerks, and 13 choristers who lived in a richly-cloistered environment, was now a truncated and much-reduced shadow of its former self.


Fotheringhay Church

Scene of Preservation: The Parish Churches of Tansor, Hemington, and Benefield

Despite this sad story of loss, it may be comforting — if not surprising — to know that original woodwork and painted glass from Fotheringhay can still be found nearby. The sale of materials of the dismantled choir in 1573 led to the dispersal of its woodwork to the parish churches at Tansor, King’s Cliffe, Benefield, Hemington and Warmington. Misericords at Tansor and Hemington display Yorkist heraldry, including the well-known falcon-and-fetterlock badge of the third Duke of York. Hemington even has a misericord showing two boars. The boar, as we know, was chosen by Richard as Duke of Gloucester for his badge. This has led at least one investigator to conclude that Richard III “almost certainly donated the splendid set of choir stalls from Fotheringhay which are now in Hemington church (Northants): his boar device occurs twice on them”. [Marks, p. 82] However, H. K. Bonney, in his Hist. Notes on Fotheringhay (1821) said the stalls were left by will to Hemington church by a farmer of Fotheringhay in the 18th century. Bonney received this information from a Rev. F. H. La Trobe.

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At Benefield, three carved misericord seats, said to have come originally from Fotheringhay church, were purchased at Tansor in 1899 and placed in the chancel, one on the north and two on the south side.


Misericord w/ Roses & Grotesque (Benefield)


The Parish Church at King’s Cliffe

The parish church dedicated to All Saints & Saint James at King’s Cliffe is particularly of interest, as it has not only woodwork from Fotheringhay but also original painted window glass. The woodwork consists of panels of a uniform design, and were probably used at Fotheringhay as stall ends or elsewhere in the fabric of the choir. The parishioners at King’s Cliffe now use these wooden panels as pew ends. They appear to be remarkably similar to wooden panels recently repatriated to Fotheringhay from Tansor. (The panels from Tansor are now on display at Fotheringhay, and are undergoing restoration.) At Warmington, the parish church appears to have acquired similar wood panels, but has painted them in Art Nouveau colors.


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There is also a pulpit at King’s Cliffe constructed from 15th century wood from Fotheringhay. Before 1896, it was a much grander, three-tiered reading desk with pulpit. A booklet at King’s Cliffe describes how it would have appeared in the early 19th century when its Rector, H K Bonney, took extensive notes:

The materials of which the Desk and Pulpit are composed are oak panels with good tracery, brought from the Nave of the Church at Fotheringhay in 1813. The base is divided into panels, ornamented with quatre foiles, arches and mouldings, and terminated with foliage. Above this rises the desk for the Prayer Book and Bible, decorated with four panels of well-executed tracery formerly on the seat appropriated to the inhabitants of the Castle at Fotheringhay. Above all is an octagonal Pulpit, the panels of which are similar to the ends of the Free Seats, standing upon a base which bears three shields. [The Free Seats had been installed by Bonney in King’s Cliffe church at the same time as the three-deck pulpit]. In the centre are the armorial bearings of the present Rector [H K Bonney himself] – on a bend three fleur de lys, and on each side these inscriptions: “From Fotheringhay, of the date of 15th century” and “Erected by H K B Rector 1818”.

The Pulpit is surmounted by a rich Canopy corresponding with itself, ornamented by Pendants and Finials, with Arches, enriched with tracery between them.

In putting up the Free Seats, the Parish was assisted by the donation of Mrs Bridget Bonney, the Rector’s mother.

The painted glass at the East and West ends was chiefly collected from the refuse of the windows at Fotheringhay.

The surviving pulpit retains only the octagonal structure, but a drawing made by H K Bonney illustrates how it appeared in the early 19th century:

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The painted glass is even more fascinating, since glass is such an ephemeral and easily damaged object. A number of “quarries” (small, diamond-shaped panes) show fetterlocks, roses, oak leaves, roses-en-soleil, and suns — distinctive badges of the Yorkists.


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Other windows at King’s Cliffe show angels playing instruments, and various animals and birds.  According to Marks, their dimensions correspond with those of the tracery lights in the Fotheringhay aisle windows, further confirming their provenance.


A window in the north aisle at King’s Cliffe has 15th century glass, also believed to be from Fotheringhay:


King's Cliffe

Possible 15th Century Glass at King’s Cliffe

King’s Cliffe is a short, 10-minute drive from Fotheringhay, and is worth a visit for any Ricardian. The church has many delightful medieval artifacts, including carved corbels in the shape of human faces, and gargoyles in the shape of fanciful animals.

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Much of the church was constructed in the 15th century, and it fortunately survived the destruction of churches that occurred during the Reformation movements of the 16th and 17th centuries. One can definitely get a good idea of how a parish church was built during the life of Richard III. And, if one’s imagination is active enough, you might even feel the spirit of his birthplace and the “Yorkist Age” speaking through its Fotheringhay artifacts.


King's Cliffe

King’s Cliffe Parish Church


Blog author:  Susan Troxell; photo credits – Susan Troxell.

Further Reading:

“Fotheringhay.” An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 6, Architectural Monuments in North Northamptonshire. London: Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1984. 63-75. British History Online. Web. 6 November 2017.

“King’s Cliffe”, in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in the County of Northamptonshire, Volume 6, Architectural Monuments in North Northamptonshire (London, 1984), pp. 91-106. British History Online [accessed 30 October 2017].

Richard Marks, The Glazing of Fotheringhay Church and College, Journal of the British Archaeological Association, 41:1, 79-109 (1978)

Sofija Matich and Jennifer S. Alexander, Creating and recreating the Yorkist tombs in Fotheringhay church (Northamptonshire), Church Monuments, Volume XXVI, pp. 82-103 (2011)



Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Gruyères Castle

Lady on Horseback

Lady on Horseback, mid-15th c., British Museum

It is tempting to think that the British Isles contain all the sites associated with Richard III’s life. Of course, that’s not true. Richard lived abroad twice, first in 1461 and again in 1470-1. On both occasions, he had fled England in order to save his life and wound up living in lands controlled by the Duke of Burgundy.  The Duke, a descendant of a junior branch of the French royal house of Valois, maintained the most glamorous and sophisticated court in all of Europe.  So powerful were the Valois-Burgundian dukes that when Edward IV became king, he betrothed his sister Margaret to the heir of that duchy.

Charles the Bold

Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (1433-1477). His third marriage was to Margaret of York, Edward IV’s and Richard III’s sister. He would be the last of the Valois dukes of Burgundy.

Margaret’s intended husband, Charles “the Bold” or “the Rash”, became Duke of Burgundy with the death of his father Philip “the Good” in 1467. Their marriage (Charles’ third) occurred in 1468 in a lavish wedding ceremony culminating with 10 days of festivities in Bruges.  The marriage alliance had a profound impact on geopolitics, both in England and on the Continent. Edward IV would lose the support of Richard Neville, “the Kingmaker” Earl of Warwick, because he favored an alliance with France. France would take an aggressive stance against both England and Burgundy, and actively seek to thwart both regimes.  Burgundy, the on-again/off-again ally of England, would generally fall into allegiance with its Anglo cousin.  Although Margaret never bore Charles any children, she did take great delight in being a step-mother to Mary, Charles’ sole heir and daughter by his second wife.  One of the reasons why Margaret did not have any children by Charles is that he was usually off fighting somewhere in his far-flung territories.

Map of territories held by the Dukes of Burgundy 1465-77. (By Marco Zanoli, Wikipedia Creative Commons)

Charles inherited an enormous assemblage of lands that gave him a revenue stream rivaling those of other European monarchs.  In 1473, he even announced to the Holy Roman Emperor that he desired to form an independent sovereign state, with himself (naturally) its king.  Bold, indeed!  Charles wasn’t content, however, with his inheritance and he sought to expand and solidify his territorial holdings.   His army entered the Duchy of Lorraine and seized Nancy in November 1475; he then proceeded to march south against the Swiss Confederation, doing battle against the Swiss at Grandson and then at Morat (Murten) in 1476.  Behind his back, the Duke of Lorraine re-took Nancy while Charles was fighting the Swiss, and thus, in the Winter of 1476-7, Charles found himself moving his troops back to Lorraine in an effort to recapture Nancy.  It was a fatal mistake.  Charles’ army would be routed in the bloody Battle of Nancy and Charles slain in battle.  His head had been cleft in two by a halberd, and his body could not be found amongst the battle detritus for two days.  It had been stripped of clothes and jewels and the face was mangled, cut open and partly eaten by dogs or wolves, and it could only be identified by its long fingernails and battle scars.  His death, like his third marriage, would have significant geopolitical consequences.  His daughter Mary’s husband, Archduke Maximilian from the House of Hapsburg, would become Holy Roman Emperor.  The lands that had been in the possession of the Dukes of Burgundy now became absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire, and then involved in the Wars of Religion and the horrific Thirty Years’ War of the 16th and 17th centuries.  The border between France and Germany, at Alsace-Lorraine, would be disputed into the 20th century.

So what does this have to do with Gruyères Castle, you might ask?  Well, the person who claimed to have killed Charles the Bold was the Count of Gruyères, who fought at the Battle of Nancy along with other mercenaries from the Swiss Confederacy.  The Count’s family seat was in the Swiss Canton of Fribourg, where his ancestral castle overlooked the town of Gruyères.  My husband and I discovered this, much to our surprise, when we visited in May 2017.

Gruyères Castle

Gruyères is a bit of a tourist mecca for those visiting this part of Europe, as it has many attractions including the heritage cheese and some very impressive mountains.  But most impressive of all is its castle, originally constructed in the 13th century in the “Savoyard” style.  It is open to the public every day of the week, and contains several medieval features including a kitchen, receiving room, bedchamber, chapel, and ramparts.  It also has a cape belonging to Charles the Bold as a knight of the Order of the Golden Fleece, which was taken as booty by the Swiss when they defeated Charles at the Battle of Morat (Murten).

Gruyères Castle – Cape of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, as a member of the Order of the Golden Fleece

The Count of Gruyères’ achievement at the Battle of Nancy is memorialized in a 19th century wall painting depicting him slaying Charles the Bold, along with other famous tales of the Counts of Gruyères.

19th century painting depicting Charles the Bold’s death by the Count of Gruyères at the Battle of Nancy

Gruyères itself is a perfectly preserved medieval town, with abundant hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops.  There is a museum devoted to the contemporary Swiss artist H.R. Giger, who designed the aliens in the Alien movie series.  If that isn’t your cup of tea, there is always scrumptious cheese fondue or local raspberries served with cream.  You would certainly fare better with Gruyères than Richard III’s rash brother-in-law!

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Richard Vaughan, CHARLES THE BOLD (Boydell Press, 1973)

Was Richard III born on October 2 or October 11?

To begin this post, I will confess to having an attachment to the date of birth that Richard III wrote in his personal prayer-book.  In his own hand, he inscribed next to the entry for October 2 the words “hac die natus erat Ricardus Rex anglie IIIus apud ffoderingay Anno D’ni mcccc lijo” (“at this day had been born King Richard III of England, at Fotheringhay, in the year of our Lord 1452”).  I was born on October 2, five centuries later.  As a student of “Ricardian” history, it’s a point of pride for me to be born on the same calendar day as Richard — which makes me rather eccentric to say the least.


Richard III’s Book of Hours – with handwritten notation of his birthdate (L)

Nevertheless, it’s rare that we get to see anyone from the medieval period writing down their birthday, and so it is with some confusion that I see some people taking an issue with this date because they are distracted by the Gregorian calendar which came into existence in 1582, almost 100 years after Richard became king and then died.  What are we to make of the differences between the Julian (medieval) calendar and the Gregorian (modern) one?  Should we adjust the date of Richard’s birth to account for our modern calendar?

One author, Joan Szechtman, has addressed this dilemma.  In her blog Random Thoughts of an Accidental Author, she writes that dates need to be adjusted

… only if the story takes place between October 1582 and September 1752. This is because in February 1582, Pope Gregory XIII issued a papal bull to correct discrepancies in the calendar where the solstices didn’t align. The bull decreed that ten days were to be eliminated from the calendar such that the day following Thursday, October 4, 1582 would thereafter be known as Friday, October 15, 1582 (instead of October 5th)—hence eliminating ten days from that year. Years that were divisible by 100 must also be divisible by 400 to be a leap year, and new rules were put in place for determining the date on which Easter fell. In addition, leap day was moved from the day before February 25th to the day after February 28th. (I wonder if the Julian leap day was February 24.5?)

A further complication was the day celebrated for the New Year. Not only did it vary from country to country, but also between groups within a country. So the New Year may have been celebrated in March, January, or December. This bull also set the New Year to January 1st.

The bull was issued after Great Britain broke with the Roman Catholic Church. Great Britain did not adopt the new calendar until September 1752, when September 14th immediately followed September 2nd.

When Pope Gregory made his calendar, it was not intended to be applied retroactively to previous centuries and past dates were not altered.  The main reason historians engage in “date adjustment” is to account for discrepancies during the period when Great Britain was still using the Julian calendar whereas Roman Catholic countries on the Continent had followed the papal bull and adopted the Gregorian one.  So, if one happened to be dealing with an event that was recorded in France as occurring on October 12, 1590, and if one wanted to find out what was happening in England on that same day of the week, one would have to look at what the English had recorded as occurring on October 2, 1590.  Historians notate this by indicating whether the date in question is Julian (“Old Style” or “OS”) or Gregorian (“New Style” or “NS”).

Historians have not applied the Old Style/New Style system to dates from the 15th century because there’s no need to.  What happened on October 2, 1452 in England also happened on October 2, 1452 in France, since both countries were following the Julian calendar then.  At most, historians sometimes designate 15th century years in the manner XXXX/Y, e.g., 1480/1, which is to convey the difference between the medieval legal year, which in England began on Lady Day (March 25), versus the calendar year which began on January 1st.  This would apply only to dates between January 1-March 24, and is intended to assist the reader with clarifying the calendar year in question.  Because Richard was born on October 2, well after Lady Day, there is no need to make any such notation for his birth year of 1452.


Papal Bull issued by Pope Gregory in 1582

More importantly, the Gregorian calendar only affected the civil calendar, not the religious one.  This is another reason to be very cautious in applying it retroactively — a process that results in what is called a “proleptic Gregorian calendar”.   For example, the Battle of Agincourt is recorded to have occurred on St Crispin’s Day, the 25th of October, 1415 – no one disputes the month or day of the week on which it happened.  Would any serious historian claim that we should recalculate that date based on the Gregorian calendar?  If we do, then we must apply the rule of calculation for the “proleptic Gregorian calendar” and add 9 days to that date* – making the battle fought on November 3, the feast day of Winifred the Virgin Martyr.  Imagine how utterly different the narrative of that battle would be written if Winifred had to replace St Crispin in this speech from Shakespeare’s Henry V:

This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words—
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester—
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be rememberèd-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Changing dates can therefore have a profound, and unintentional, effect on the historiography of an event.  If we use the “proleptic Gregorian calendar” to say that Richard III was actually born on the 11th of October instead of the 2nd of October, then don’t we also change what saint’s feast day would have been celebrated on the day of his birth?  Admittedly, this may seem esoteric to modern secularists, but to medieval people this might have been deemed slightly heretical.

Finally, there’s the argument that we should adjust Richard III’s birth date because it would be more accurate in terms of a seasonal or astronomical understanding.  Our “understanding” of October 2 today means that the sun rises and sets, and that particular constellations would be ascendant in the sky, at X, Y, and Z times; in 1452 all those things would be different on the day they recorded as October 2.  In Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, the sun rises 15 minutes later on October 11 than on October 2 according to modern calculations.  As pointed out by several writers of historical fiction, this may be important for how they portray past events such as battle scenes.**  It may also be important for those who subscribe to the study of astrology, and for casting astrological charts.

I am not a strong believer in astrology, but even if one were, the astrological argument is confounded by the fact that the Earth’s rotation is not a constant speed.  The Earth’s rotation is actually slower with every passing day, making today ever so slightly longer than yesterday.  Even under the Gregorian calendar, there are fluctuations in the dates of the solstices; in 1903, the date of the winter solstice was December 23, whereas in 2096, it will be December 20 – 2.25 days of variation compared with the seasonal event.  Sir John Herschel noted that the Gregorian calendar fell behind in the astronomical seasons, and therefore offered a different way to calculate leap years (a proposal that has yet to be adopted).  So, if we stood at the site of Fotheringhay Castle on October 11, 2017, it is unlikely that what we would see in the skies would have been precisely identical to what Richard’s contemporaries had seen on October 2, 1452.

Phew! Are you confused by now?  I know I am!  This is really complicated material.  And I am by no means an expert on this issue.  Personally, I believe that changing dates from the 15th century to meet the 21st century calendar is slightly dodgy, and leads to a distortion of the historical record.  Perhaps I am wrong, and am missing the counter-argument(s).  I welcome hearing alternative views; but until then, if Richard wrote that he was born on October 2, then that’s good enough for me.

(*Under the “proleptic Gregorian calendar”, one would add 10 days to 16th century dates, 9 days to 15th century, and 8 days for the 14th century.)

(**To change the date from October 2 to October 11 would also alter the day of the week Richard was born on – from Monday to Wednesday.  How that may impact the historical narrative is unknown or of minimal value, but it does result in a discrepancy between the “truth” of his birth date and one that results in a “pseudo-truth”.)


You can find Joan Szechtman’s blog at

For a free, on-line digitization of Richard III’s Book of Hours, including his handwritten note regarding his date of birth, see

For the medieval calendar of saints’ days, see

For a table for converting Julian dates into “proleptic Gregorian calendar” dates, see

Thomas Langton: Richard III’s Character Witness

Amongst the glories of Winchester Cathedral, there is a chantry chapel of outstanding beauty and magnificence. The man who is buried there, and for whom the roof bosses provide a rebus clue, is Thomas Langton, who died of plague in 1501 only days after being elected by Henry VII as Archbishop of Canterbury. Earlier, he had served as the Bishop of Winchester (1493-1501), Salisbury (1484-93) and St. David’s (1483-84), and acted as a servant to three — or four, depending on how you count — English kings. As the information plaque at Winchester Cathedral succinctly announces, Langton had been a chaplain to Edward IV and Richard III, and Ambassador to France and Rome.

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Although his death came as a surprise in his 70th year, he did have the opportunity to make an extensive will, showing he died a very wealthy man. It runs to over 100 items, and contains monetary legacies amounting to £2000, including the provision of six exhibitions in Queen’s College, Oxford, and more than a dozen other benefactions to the universities. Richard Pace (d. 1536), the future diplomat and Dean of St Paul’s, who had been sent as a young man to study at Padua at Langton’s expense, remembered that the bishop ‘befriended all learned men exceedingly, and in his time was another Maecenas*, rightly remembering (as he often said), that it was for learning that he had been promoted to the rank of bishop’. *Maecenas is a man who is a generous patron, especially of arts and literature.

It was “for learning” that Langton achieved his fame and reputation as an able diplomat, a proponent of the New Learning or Studia humanitatis, and one of the preeminent educators of his day. He was born in Appleby, Westmorland around the year 1430 to an obscure family that had no social prestige or any apparent political leanings. No nobleman is mentioned in his will or within his household, and none of his ancestors receive mention in the lists of household retainers of the great northern lords.

Despite his humble origins, he graduated with a Masters of Art degree from Cambridge University by 1456 and was a fellow of Pembroke College by 1462–3, where he served as senior proctor. He vacated his fellowship in 1464 to study at Padua University in Italy, but soon returned to Cambridge because of a shortage of funds, receiving a Bachelor of Theology in 1465. During his second stay in Italy, from 1468-73, Langton was created a Doctor of Canon Law at Bologna University in 1473 and Doctor of Theology by 1476. In 1487, he was elected Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford, becoming one of its greatest benefactors. As Bishop of Winchester, he started and personally supervised a school in the precincts of the bishop’s palace, where youths were educated in grammar and music. He was a good musician himself, and took talented musical children into his tutelage. It has been said he would study the various dispositions of the pupils, and would examine them at night on their day’s work, “always on the look-out for merit, that by encouragement it might be made more”.


Aside from this, Langton is probably best known for a letter he wrote which included some remarks about Richard III. In September, 1483, he was part of the retinue which accompanied the newly-crowned king on his royal progress from London to points west and north, and observed the following:

He contents the people where he goes best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress. And in many great cities and towns were great sums of money given him which he hath refused. On my troth I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his; God hath sent him to us for the weal of us all. . . .

As Keith Dockray observed, private letters like Langton’s are an “important quarry of information for the era of the Wars of the Roses”. They often can be dated precisely, helping historians to pinpoint the timing of key events. Moreover, since private letters are not written with a conscious attempt to record events for posterity or to promote official political propaganda, they offer a less filtered and more candid commentary on contemporary issues. As such they are valuable supplements to official records and chronicles of English history.

But letters have flaws, too, and those drawbacks can’t be ignored. People can lie, exaggerate, or speculate in their private correspondence. They can describe events they haven’t seen first-hand. They can create or spread vicious rumors and hearsay. Or, they can give unwarranted praise for an individual, or describe an event or issue not as an objective bystander, but as a partisan or someone with prejudices.  Historians therefore don’t accept as true everything said in letters, so they submit them to an analysis of whether they should be deemed reliable or dismissed, in whole or part.

Langton’s September 1483 letter has received critical appraisal by historians over the centuries. The “conventional wisdom” was expressed by Professor Charles Ross in his 1981 biography of Richard III:

Langton was scarcely an impartial witness. A Cumberland man who had risen in Richard’s service, he had only recently been promoted to the see [bishopric] of St David’s during the Protectorate, and was soon to receive Lionel Woodville’s much richer see [bishopric] of Salisbury when the latter fled into exile in the aftermath of the 1483 rebellion. He had a natural and inbuilt interest in seeing Richard succeed.

The assertion that Langton’s account is “that of a partisan, and likely to be tinged with partiality” goes back to 1827 when J.B. Sheppard transcribed and wrote the introduction to The Christ Church Letters: A volume of mediaeval letters relating to the affairs of the priory of Christ Church Canterbury. That the preeminent scholar on Richard III wrote in 1981 a sentiment that was expressed 150 years earlier shows the tenacity of certain viewpoints. But more importantly, lying beneath Sheppard’s conclusion is the irreconcilable idea that a man of Langton’s qualities could actually praise someone who in his mind is a manipulative usurper. To Sheppard, “it is to be deplored” that he should fall into such naiveté. But this begs the question: who is being naïve? Can an historian objectively assess Langton’s letter if s/he views Richard III as being essentially repellant or heroic?

Because of this potential pitfall, we could look to other methodologies that divorce the historian from his or her own prejudices. Scientific laboratory analysis of Richard III’s skeletal remains, for instance, has already helped separate fact from fiction. This multi-disciplinary approach has debunked myths about his spinal deformity and appearance. Similarly, there is a methodology for judging the credibility of what Langton said in his letter. It comes from our courts of law where, every day, juries are instructed to apply a number of factors to sort out believable from unbelievable testimony:

Preliminary Instructions – Credibility of Witnesses

In deciding what the facts are, you may have to decide what testimony you believe and what testimony you do not believe. You are the sole judges of the credibility of the witnesses. “Credibility” means whether a witness is worthy of belief. You may believe everything a witness says or only part of it or none of it. In deciding what to believe, you may consider a number of factors, including the following:

 (1) the opportunity and ability of the witness to see or hear or know the things the witness testifies to;

(2) the quality of the witness’s understanding and memory;

(3) the witness’s manner while testifying;

(4) whether the witness has an interest in the outcome of the case or any motive, bias or prejudice;

(5) whether the witness is contradicted by anything the witness said or wrote before trial or by other evidence;

(6) how reasonable the witness’s testimony is when considered in the light of other evidence that you believe; and

(7) any other factors that bear on believability.

Model Jury Instruction 1.7.

While these factors are used to weigh evidence in criminal and civil trials, they are also extremely useful in analyzing historical accounts like Langton’s letter. Indeed, historians apply some or all of them without realizing it. Charles Ross and J.B. Sheppard, for instance, rely exclusively on factor (4) to conclude that Langton was a biased partisan who would be motivated to see Richard III in the most favorable light. The reader is thus left with an incomplete analysis, since there is little or no attempt to apply the other items.

The goal of this essay is to give Langton’s letter a more thorough analysis by applying all the factors that determine a witness’s credibility. By doing so, we will discover much more about Langton’s life than is usually described in history books, and we will see emerge a picture that is quite different from the one painted by Ross and Sheppard. But before we do this, we first need to read the entire letter and understand its context.

From Thomas Langton, Bishop of St. David’s, to the Prior of Christ Church (September 1483)

My Lord I recommend one to yow, &c. If ther hap to be ony shippis at Burdeaux at such tyme as your wyne yt shalbe clear shippyd, the Kyng wil for no thyng graunte licence to yow, ne to non other, for to ship your wyne in a straunger. If ther be non Ynglyssh shippis, ye may well in that cace ship your wyne yn a straunger; ther ys no law ne statute ayeyn it; and so by thadvyce of the chef juge, Sir Fayreford Vavasor, Sir Jervas Clifton, and Medcalf you nedys no license; and so thai all shewyd the law. In this matter this ys the conclusion; in oon cas yow nedys no licence; in the other the Kyng wil noon graunte. The Kyng hath at this tyme ij messengers with his cosin of France. If thai bring home good tithings I dout not but the Kyng will wryte to his said cosin as specially as he can for your wyne; if he have no good tythings yow must have paciens; but how so ever it shal be send Smith your servant for your wyne, for I dout not but ye shal have it this yer. I pray you do so mych for me to take your servant iiij li. Or els pray master supprior to do it, to such tyme that y shal com to London, and pray your said servant for to by me ij tun of wyne with it, and bring it home with yours. I trust to God ye shal here such tythings in hast that I shalbe an Ynglissh man and no mor Welsh—Sit hoc clam omes. The Kyng of Scots hath sent a curteys and a wise letter to the Kyng for [h]is cace, but I trow ye shal undirstond thai shal have a sit up or ever the Kyng departe fro York. Thai ly styl at the siege of Dunbar, but I trust to God it shalbe kept fro thame. I trust to God sune, by Michelmasse, the Kyng shal be at London. He contents the people wher he goys best that ever did prince; for many a poor man that hath suffred wrong many days have be relevyd and helpyd by hym and his commands in his progresse. And in many grete citeis and townis wer grete summis of mony gif hym which he hath refusyd. On my trouth I lykyd never the condicions of ony prince so wel as his; God hathe sent hym to us for the wele of us al neque . . . . voluptas aliquis regnat . . . . . . . . . . . .
Our Lord have you in his kepyng. I wold as fayn have be consecrate in your chyrch as ye would have had me your


It shal be wel do that your servant bring a certificate from the Mayr of Burdeaux that ther was no sheppis ther of Ynglond at such tymes as he ladyd your wyn.

To my Lord the Prior of Cryschyrch of Canterbury.

In order to understand the letter, we need to know three things: (a) to whom was he writing? (b) what was the nature of their past correspondence? and (c) what were the events that prompted this particular letter?

Who was the Prior of Christ Church and Why was Langton Writing to Him?

The Prior of Christ Church in Canterbury was William Selling. Like Langton, he came from an obscure family, studied in Italy, supported the New Learning, and collected books. Selling is considered one of the early Renaissance figures of England and several of his Latin orations are still extant; particularly notable is the speech he prepared for the convocation of 19 April 1483, cancelled by Edward IV’s death and funeral.   Selling and Langton were the same age, both born circa 1430, and first met in Italy where Langton was pursuing a doctorate of canon law. Selling was a Benedictine monk at the time, but would become prior of Christ Church in 1472.

The two lived through the turmoil of Henry VI’s mental incapacitations and the power struggles that accompanied them, the defeat of the House of Lancaster at Towton in 1461, the early uncertainties of Edward IV’s Yorkist reign, the Kingmaker’s 1469 defection, Henry VI’s readeption and demise in 1471, and the crises brought about by the king’s sudden death in April, 1483. With so many shared experiences, they must have had a natural kinship. This is reflected in Langton’s statement that “I wold as fayn have be consecrate in your chyrch as ye would have had me”. Indeed, just a year earlier, Selling gave Langton the prestigious rectory of All Hallows Gracechurch in London, so presumably he reciprocated Langton’s affection.

They had been corresponding to each other for at least half a decade. In a letter written by Langton to Selling and dated the last day of the 1478 Parliament, we learn that Selling composed a sermon for convocation and had asked Langton to deliver it. Langton explains that Edward IV had assigned him to deal with Spanish ambassadors on “weighty” matters and regrets he might not be available to do so. He inquires after Master T. Smyth (presumably the same servant mentioned in the September 1483 letter) and then interjects “Ther be assignyd certen Lords to go with the body of the Dukys of Clarence to Teuxbury, where he shall be beryid; the Kyng intendis to do right worshipfully for his sowle.” He conveys the news that he was recently made Treasurer of Exeter Cathedral and states how much income he will derive from that office. He hopes Prior Selling shall be receiving “his wine” soon. The letter shows a mix of current events, personal news, and concern for a good friend.

What is the letter of September 1483 talking about? And what’s the big deal about “the wine”?

The letter written by Langton in September 1483 falls along the same general lines as the one from 1478, being a mix of current political events and personal news. More than half the content deals with the issue of “Prior Selling’s wine” and how to get it shipped from Bordeaux without incurring import taxes. Wine was not a frivolity but a major concern for the Canterbury priory; it was expensive and it was needed for the communion sacrament. In 1179, King Louis VII of France made a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury and in gratitude made a bequest in perpetuity for an enormous quantity of French wine (1,600 gallons per year) to the monks of Christ Church Priory. With the English invasion of France during the Hundred Years War, the French stopped honoring this grant, possibly because of the despoiling of their northern vineyards. When Langton was sent to France in 1477 as Edward IV’s ambassador, Selling gave him a petition along with instructions to do his utmost to press Louis XI (“the Spider King”) for a favorable answer on acknowledging the grant. As a result of Langton’s efforts, the French king not only committed himself to honoring the grant again, but he also stipulated that the wine would come from the Loire Valley – the best quality of wine produced in France. Langton’s achievement was memorialized in Canterbury’s records, and he was offered the living of St. Leonard, Eastcheap — an offer he declined in favor of accepting a future benefice. He’d end up waiting five years for that to happen. If anything, Langton was a very patient man.

In September 1483, with the accession of Richard III, the grant was still in operation but its future was uncertain, especially since the French had a new king in the person of Charles VIII. Langton reports to Selling that King Richard had sent two messengers to King Charles, ostensibly for the purpose, among others, of seeing whether the new French king would honor the grant of wine. Langton assures his friend that King Richard will personally write to Charles if necessary. However, the immediate concern for Selling was how to get his wine shipped out of Bordeaux without paying duties or a license to import. This was why Langton conferred with several judges and lawyers on the matter; their consensus was that Selling did not need a license to import and would not have to pay duties, even if the wine was carried aboard French ships. Langton then asks a favor: could Selling’s man buy two tuns of wine in France for him and have it shipped along with the Prior’s wine? Posterity does not record whether Selling agreed to this, but the upshot is that Langton was looking to evade paying duties by having his wine commingled with Selling’s duty-free cargo. One can be certain that Langton didn’t intend this letter to be read by the king’s agents.

The remainder of the September 1483 letter deals with how the new English king is being perceived on royal progress, Langton’s personal aspirations, and the situation with Scotland. Langton reports that the Scottish siege of Dunbar is still on-going, and he hopes the English will prevail in their occupation of that fortress. While the “Kyng of Scots” sent a courteous and wise letter about it, Langton believes some kind of confrontation between the two monarchs will occur, in the form of a “sit up” (i.e., diplomatic parlay) while King Richard is at York.

One of the more curious things about Langton’s letter is when he breaks into Latin, which happens twice. The first time is when he says “I trust to God ye shal here such tythings in hast that I shalbe an Ynglissh man and no mor Welsh—Sit hoc clam omes”. This sentence has been interpreted to mean that Langton aspired to be translated from St. David’s to an English bishopric in the foreseeable future — but let this be secret from everybody.

The second use of Latin is more puzzling, and is confounded by the illegibility of the original document which is partially damaged by damp.   In 1827, Sheppard transcribed Langton as saying: “On my trouth I lykyd never the condicions of ony prince so wel as his; God hathe sent hym to us for the wele of us al neque . . . . voluptas aliquis regnat………” Alison Hanham made another attempt in 1975 to decipher this portion of the letter, reporting that she was assisted by a Miss Anne M. Oakley, Canterbury Cathedral’s archivist who looked at the manuscript under ultra-violet light. Hanham’s transcription reads: “Neque exceptionem do voluptas aliqualiter regnat in augmentatia” This, she translates into English as “Sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent, but I do not consider that this detracts from what I have said”.  Hanham finds this observation to be consistent with the Crowland chronicler’s comments about Richard III’s court, where it was said too much attention was paid to singing and dancing and to vain exchanges of clothing, provoking the outrage of the people, the magnates and the prelates.

Viewing the totality of Langton’s relationship with Selling, the general tenor of his correspondence, and the things discussed, one can safely say they were intimate colleagues who were keenly interested in political developments and were genuinely interested in the other’s welfare. Selling entrusted Langton to deliver his sermon in convocation, to negotiate a sensitive issue with Louis XI about a lapsed grant, and to get a legal opinion about shipping his wine. With the accession of Richard III, Selling could reasonably expect to be called upon to write a sermon for the next convocation, as he had done for the one canceled April, 1483. Getting an accurate temperature reading on the new king and the political climate would be critical to that task. So the question becomes whether Selling could trust the credibility of Langton’s observations about the king, and this brings us to applying the legal methodology set out above.

Application of Witness Credibility Factors

(1) Did Langton have the opportunity and ability to see, hear, or know the things he wrote about Richard III?

Langton was remarkably well-placed to have first-hand observations about Richard III and the events of 1483. Not only was he present with the new king during his royal progress, but he was also living in London after returning from a diplomatic embassy to France in December 1482.   As Rector of All Hallows Gracechurch, Langton’s parish included the Tower and Baynard’s Castle. This put Langton in close proximity to the events occurring at the Tower, and it made Richard a parishioner of Langton’s while he lived at Baynard’s as Lord Protector, and where on 26 June 1483 he was offered the crown.  Moreover, it is quite likely that he was called to consult Edward V’s and Richard III’s royal councils on matters concerning foreign policy with France; Langton had made numerous diplomatic trips to the court of Louis XI and could provide valuable insights. As Langton’s biographer D.P. Wright notes, whenever Langton wasn’t on embassy “he was busy at court”.  Since the administrations of Edward V and Richard III were notable for their continuity with Edward IV’s, there’s no reason to believe Langton suddenly found himself ostracized from court.

Langton participated, to some extent, in the coronation rituals of Richard III. He is mentioned in an indenture made between the king and Abbot of the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster, dated July 7, 1483. There, Langton and the Bishop of St. Asaph’s conveyed to the Abbot’s possession the reliquary ampule of St Becket’s oil that had been used during the king’s anointment.   From this, historians believe Langton might have also participated in the procession carrying the ampule on the Vigil before coronation.

We can therefore conclude that Langton had an excellent opportunity to observe Richard’s conduct as Lord Protector and as king. But did he have a basis to measure Richard against other princes?  Here again, Langton had a wealth of experience to draw upon.  During his diplomatic embassies to Spain, France, and Burgundy, he met King Ferdinand, Duke Maximilian, and Louis XI.  Indeed, Langton had several private audiences with the “Spider King”, including one in 1479 when Louis dismissed everyone from his palace so he could speak to Langton in absolute privacy.  And, of course, Langton had ample experience with Edward IV and his courtiers, through six years of service to his administration. So when Langton states “On my troth I liked never the conditions of any prince so well as his”, it’s coming from a man who draws from a deep well of past experience with Europe’s and England’s most powerful leaders.

(2) How good was Langton’s understanding and memory of the events he spoke about?

Unlike Dominic Mancini, Langton was a native-born Englishman who understood its vernacular language and customs. In 1483, he was 53 years old with no apparent defects in his memory or acuity; he would go on to be elected Archbishop of Canterbury at age 70 so he must have had his “senses” even at that advanced age.

More importantly, Langton wrote his letter contemporaneously with the events he was reporting about. Contemporaneous writings are generally more reliable than those written “in hindsight”. The problem with hindsight is that it tends to view past events as fitting into pattern or being consistent with a result occurring much later. Many of us are familiar with the phrase “Monday morning quarterback” in American football, where a quarterback’s decision to throw a pass is criticized if it was intercepted and/or contributed to his team’s ultimate loss of the game. Most of us agree it’s not entirely fair to judge someone like that because the loss of the game was dependent on more variables than just one pass.

The same applies to historical chronicles, such as the Abbey of Crowland’s Continuations (aka “Crowland Chronicle”). Written by an unknown cleric in 1486, the chronicler assesses Richard III’s reign a year after his death at Bosworth. He views this outcome as evidence of God’s judgment on a usurper, murderer of nephews, and evil king.  And while the Continuator tries to be as fair as possible, he cannot resist judging an event, or people, by the future consequences. When, for instance, the assembled English lords took an oath in February 1484 recognizing Richard III’s son as heir to the throne, the Crowland Chronicler views the son’s death in April as evidence that the oath was futile and was an “attempt of man to regulate his affairs without God”.  The Crowland Chronicler observes this about Richard III’s royal progress to York in September 1483:

“Wishing therefore to display in the North, where he had spent most of his time previously, the superior royal rank, which he acquired for himself in this manner, as diligently as possible, he left the royal city of London and passing through Windsor, Oxford and Coventry came at length to York. There, on a day appointed for the repetition of his crowning in the metropolitan church, he presented his only son, Edward, whom, that same day, he had created prince of Wales with the insignia of the gold wand and the wreath; and he arranged splendid and highly expensive feasts and entertainments to attract to himself the affection of many people. There was no shortage of treasure then to implement the aims of his so elevated mind since, as soon as he first thought about his intrusion into the kingship, he seized everything that his deceased brother, the most glorious King Edward, had collected with the utmost ingenuity and the utmost industry, many years before, as we have related above, and which he had committed to the use of his executors for the carrying out of his last will.”

Langton’s letter of September 1483 was not written with foreknowledge of Richard III’s eventual death at Bosworth, or even the rebellion that would be put down in November. Instead, it is offered as an appraisal of the king during his first two months on the throne, and rendered after the controversial way in which he acceded to the crown. What’s interesting is how Langton describes a different version of why the king was so popular with the people; it’s not for the “splendid and highly expensive feasts and entertainments” alone, but because “many a poor man that hath suffered wrong many days have been relieved and helped by him and his commands in his progress”. Langton’s account also differs from the Crowland Continuator’s statement about Richard III’s rapacity for acquiring wealth. The king, Langton observes, refuses the tributes and gifts of money offered to him. While we needn’t toss out the entirety of the Crowland chronicler’s observations, we can concede that Langton’s account is given without the 20/20 hindsight possessed by an unknown cleric in East Anglia.

(3) How did Langton offer his information?

The information offered in Langton’s letter to Selling has two features. It was given in privacy (“Sit hoc clam omes” – let this remain secret from everybody) and it tries to be objective. The first item has received little recognition in historical journals. Compared to Mancini, who was being paid for his service and therefore would have a motive to exaggerate the significance of the rumors he heard on the street, Langton had nothing to prove or to gain, financially or otherwise, by telling Selling a slanted view of the king. And Langton did not report only the good things about Richard III. He broke into Latin to tell Selling that he thought “Sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent, but I do not consider that this detracts from what I have said”.

(4) Did Langton have any personal interest, bias, or motivation in seeing Richard III’s reign only in a positive light?

This is the area where most historians attack Langton’s credibility and objectivity. As Charles Ross asserts, Langton is biased in three ways: he is Northern and thus would favor a king from the North; he “rose up” under Richard and thus would naturally want the “gravy train” to continue; and he was favored by the king for translation to a more august English bishopric.

It is true that Langton was born in Appleby, Westmorland County, in the northwest of England, and probably (but not necessarily) lived in the north for the first two decades of life. He then moved away and, for the next 30 years, was educated at Oxford, Cambridge, Padua and Bologna, traveled extensively, and served on multiple diplomatic embassies on the continent. A fondness for his birthplace is evident by the way his last will and testament provided for his deceased parents’ chantry chapel there; for his own tomb, he chose Winchester Cathedral. Whether this background translated into a bias for men from the North is not entirely borne out. The most any historian has said on the subject is that, at the time of his death, his household had some individuals with the last names “Machell” and “Warcop” which are “redolent of Appleby and Westmoreland”.

The only favoritism displayed by Langton was for men “of learning” and youths showing talent musically or intellectually. He also promoted his nephews, Robert Langton and Christopher Bainbridge, to positions in the Church. Nepotism aside, Langton’s life and career shows striking neutrality. He served Yorkist and Tudor kings. He befriended men like William Selling, a Kentish man. Whether Langton even viewed Richard III as northern is open to question, as the king was not born or raised there, and did not show any early inclination to promote his northern ducal retainers into royal administration. We should also remember that the king’s royal progress moved through Oxfordshire, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Leicestershire, and Nottinghamshire, before arriving in Yorkshire.  Langton’s observations are not limited to what he saw in York (“he contents the people wherever he goes”).

Langton was never a retainer of Richard, Duke of Gloucester. Rosemary Horrox, whose book Richard III: A study of service details the duke’s affinity, makes no mention of Langton whatsoever. Nor did Langton’s family have the level of patronage demonstrated by another Westmorland man – Richard Redman, Bishop of St. Asaph’s – who had several family members within Richard III’s northern affinity.

Thus, the idea that he “rose up” in Richard’s service is simply wrong. Langton first came to prominence under the reign of Edward IV. He appears to have been involved in the drafting of the Royal Household Ordinance of 1478, a set of regulations for the king’s household that were complementary to those in the earlier Black Book. Here, the warrant under the king’s signet, dated 9 July 1478, tells the chancellor that “we by thaduis [the advice] of oure counsell have made certain ordinaunces for the stablysshing of oure howshold which by oure commaundement shal be deliuered vnto you by oure trusty and righte welbeloued clerc and councellor, Maister Thomas Langtone” and directing the chancellor to “put alle the ordinaunces in writing seled vnder oure great sele, and the same so seled send vnto vs by oure said counsellor without delay”.  From 1476 to 1482, Edward IV repeatedly employed Langton to serve on diplomatic embassies to Castile, France and Burgundy to negotiate matters of state, including the marriage of his children to foreign princes/princesses and the tortuous negotiations with France and Burgundy. For his efforts, Edward IV rewarded Langton by nominating him to the Treasurership of Exeter Cathedral and the rectory of Pembridge in Herefordshire. Langton probably wanted to see continuity between Edward IV’s administration, where he had a secure place, and the new regime, whether that be under Edward V or Richard III. It is likely that he, like many prelates and lords, saw Richard as presenting the best opportunity for that continuity.

Finally, there is Langton’s statement that he hoped to be translated to an English diocese in the near future (“I trust to God ye shal here such tythings in hast that I shalbe an Ynglissh man and no mor WelshSit hoc clam omes”). For a man of Langton’s cosmopolitan qualities, the Bishopric of St. David’s was probably viewed as a stepping stone to greater benefices, rather than a final destination. Such was the case for Henry Chichele, John Catterick, and Stephen Patrington, who briefly served at St David’s before moving on to Canterbury, Coventry/Lichfield, and Chichester.

It was very early in the reign of Edward V that the Bishopric of St David’s became vacant. Richard Martyn had been elected to that position by Edward IV in April 1482, but died on May 11, 1483. As the newly-confirmed Lord Protector, Richard elected Langton whose service to Edward IV had been amply demonstrated. While he surely welcomed the bishop’s mitre, he had no connections whatsoever to Wales and it probably was not the best fit for a man with so many duties at the royal court. His predecessor, Martyn, claimed the Welsh diocese was impoverished, heavily in debt, and comprised of dilapidated buildings.  It seems when Langton was given St. David’s a year later, the diocese was still so poor that some provision had to be made for him to keep his Pembridge rectory:

Harleian MS, Vol 1, p 35: dated May 1483, by Edward V: “Know that we of our special grace and mere motion have given and granted and by these presents give and grant to our dearly beloved and faithful clerk Thomas Langton custody of all the temporalities of the bishopric of St Davids . . . on account of the sincere love and affection which we bear and have to the person of our aforesaid dearly beloved counselor Thomas Langton clerk now elected to St Davids and considering that the goods benefices and also manors lands tenements rents and other possessions belonging to the same bishopric are so greatly diminished and reduced and suffer such dilapidation and ruin that the same now elect, when he takes upon himself the office of bishop, will not be able to support or maintain as he ought his state and dignity and other burdens incumbent on the honour of bishop, of our especial grace and of our certain knowledge and mere motion and in order that the same bishop elect may be able to support and maintain fittingly and honourable the state honour and dignity of the episcopate, we have granted and given licence for ourselves and our heirs that the same now elected may send and direct his proctor or proctors to the Roman curia and that they should make certain provision that the same elect after he has been consecrated to the bishopric of that place should be able to hold the parish church of Pembridge in the diocese of Hereford in our gift which said Thomas now holds….”

Like Martyn, Langton’s relationship with his diocese of St. Davids was distant and he left no imprint on its Register.  He probably employed a vicar-general to administer the diocese and used a suffragan to deputise for him in his spiritual functions. Perhaps Langton had his eye elsewhere as there were other prelates who were of frail age (Thomas Bourchier, born 1411) or out of favor with Richard III (Thomas Rotherham, John Morton). If Langton wanted to be translated from St. David’s to an English bishopric, he’d have to be patient, wait for a vacancy to open up, and remain in favor with the king.

It seems there was one bishopric on the verge of being forcibly vacated: Lionel Woodville’s see of Salisbury. Woodville had been made bishop in 1482, and notwithstanding a brief interlude in June when he took sanctuary at Westminster Abbey with his sister the widowed Queen Elizabeth, he “did not play any significant part in the political crisis after Edward IV’s death in 1483”.  Although absent from Richard III’s coronation, he apparently came to terms with the new regime, for he was named to the commission of the peace in Dorset and Wiltshire after Richard III’s accession.  Some have suggested that Woodville personally welcomed Richard III in his role as Chancellor of Oxford University when the king visited Magdalen College on July 24-26, 1483.  His last official act as Bishop of Salisbury is dated September 22, 1483, when he granted a commission to effectuate the appropriation of the chapel of St. Katherine, Wanborough, to Magdalen College, Oxford.  He must have been under suspicion at this point, because Richard III ordered the forfeiture of his temporalities the next day. Perhaps Langton was aware of the king’s suspicions and knew that Lionel Woodville’s days were numbered.

The takeaway from all this is that Langton was certainly not a retainer of Richard III from his days as duke, had no strong pro-northern bias, and was realistically ambitious as a prelate looking for advancement to a more financially secure and less “dilapidated” bishopric. So, indeed, Langton was happy to see Richard III so well received. Did this influence his observations? Probably, but not to the extent that Charles Ross and others have suggested.

(5) Is there any evidence to contradict what Langton said in his letter, by his own hand or others?

While Langton did observe “Sensual pleasure holds sway to an increasing extent, but I do not consider that this detracts from what I have said”, there is nothing in his letter that contradicts his statement about the king’s popular reception while on royal progress or the justice dispensed to the common people along the way. So his letter is internally consistent.

The only other contemporary observation about how the people received Richard comes from Mancini, in his December 1483 report to Angelo Cato. Read in its entirety, Mancini describes the London population as being ambivalent and turbulent with speculation about Richard’s true intentions. At one point, they are favorably impressed with a letter to royal council written by Richard in April 1483 before he arrived in London. In it, he declared his loyalty to Edward IV’s heir and asked council to take “his desserts” into consideration when disposing of the government, to which he was entitled by law, and his brother’s ordinance. “This letter had a great effect on the minds of the people, who, as they had previously favoured the duke in their hearts from a belief in his probity, now began to support him openly and aloud; so that it was commonly said by all that the duke deserved the government.”

Public opinion, however, would soon veer between support and distrust of the Lord Protector. After reports were received in London that Richard had taken Edward V into custody at Stony Stafford, “the unexpectedness of the event horrified every one. The queen and the marquess, who held the royal treasure, began collecting an army to defend themselves… But … they perceived that men’s minds were not only irresolute, but altogether hostile to themselves. Some even said openly that it was more just and profitable that the youthful sovereign should be with his paternal uncle than with his maternal uncles and uterine brothers.”  Meanwhile, a “sinister rumor” was circulating that Richard had taken the young king into his possession so that he might usurp the crown. These rumors were met with more letters from Richard to council justifying his actions; when publicly read, “all praised the duke of Gloucester for his dutifulness toward his nephews and for his intention to punish their enemies. Some, however, who understood his ambition and deceit, always suspected whither his enterprises would lead.”  When Richard entered the city with wagons filled with weapons to prove there was an attempt against his life, there were Londoners who disbelieved this and thought they came from storehouses of weaponry related to the Scottish war. “[M]istrust both of his accusation and designs upon the throne was exceedingly augmented.”  When the public received news of a plot in the Tower and that its originator, Hastings, had “paid the penalty” by his execution there, Mancini writes that “at first the ignorant crowd believed, although the real truth was on the lips of many, namely that the plot had been feigned by the duke”.  The public’s pattern of alternating between trust and distrust of Richard is Mancini’s essential point.

Mancini’s final observation about the public’s perception of Richard comes shortly after Hastings’ death. By this time, Richard is riding through London surrounded by a thousand attendants dressed in purple. “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. 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.”  How Richard was perceived after his accession to the throne, however, is not part of Mancini’s report, as he concludes by saying: “These are the facts relating to the upheaval in this kingdom; but how he may afterwards have ruled, and yet rules, I have not sufficiently learnt because directly after these his triumphs I left England for France, as you Angelo Cato recalled me. Therefore farewell, and please show some mark of favour to our work, for whatever its quality, it has been willingly undertaken on your account. Once more farewell. Concluded at Beaugency in the County of Orleans. 1 December 1483.”

Mancini’s account of what happened in London in April, May and June 1483 does not match the glowing account of Langton given in September 1483. Can we explain this inconsistency? Yes. They cover different time periods so are not necessarily inconsistent; the public might have initially viewed Richard with wariness and hesitation, and then came to accept his rule in the months that followed. We also know that Mancini did not speak English, was relying on others to translate for him, was reporting hearsay and rumors. We have no way of knowing if he personally observed any of the events recorded. Nor do we know the identity of his sources for those events he did not witness. These “unknowns” do not necessarily disqualify his account but neither do Mancini’s observations disqualify Langton’s.

(6) How reasonable are Langton’s statements when considered in light of other evidence?

Langton’s statements find support in other contemporary primary sources. John Rous, when creating in 1483-84 his famous Warwick Roll, wrote that the Richard III ruled his subjects “full commendably” – punishing offenders, especially extortioners and oppressors of the common people, and cherishing those that were virtuous. By his “discrete judgment” he received great thanks and the love of all his subjects, rich and poor.  Later, in his generally critical post-1485 assessment of the king, Historium Regum Angliae, Rous observed that when offered money by the peoples of London, Gloucester and Worcester, he declined it with thanks, affirming that he would rather have their love than their treasure.

Shortly after his coronation, Richard sat with his judges and had the following exchange, as reported in the Richard III Society’s website:

Richard was concerned about justice, both for the individual and its administration. A Year Book reports one of his most famous acts, when he called together all his justices and posed three questions concerning specific cases. This record provides an idea of Richard’s comprehension of and commitment to his coronation oath to uphold the law and its proper procedures.

The second question was this. If some justice of the Peace had taken a bill of indictment which had not been found by the jury, and enrolled it among other indictments ‘well and truly found’ etc. shall there be any punishment thereupon for such justice so doing? And this question was carefully argued among the justices separately and among themselves, … And all being agreed, the justices gave the King in his Council in the Star Chamber their answer to his question in this wise: that above such defaults enquiry ought to be made by a commission of at least twelve jurors, and thereupon the party, having been presented, accused and convicted, shall lose the office and pay fine to the King according to the degree of the misprision etc.’

Even Charles Ross, who characterized Langton as a partisan, finds support for his observations in contemporary records:

“[Langton’s] specific statements are supported by other evidence. That Richard turned down offers of benevolences from the towns he visited is confirmed by John Rous, one of the most hostile sources for Richard’s reign, and record evidence confirms a similar statement by John Kendall, the king’s secretary, that throughout his reign Richard was at pains to ensure the dispensing of speedy justice, especially in the hearing of the complaints of poor folk. In December 1483 John Harington, clerk of the council, received an annuity of Ł20 for ‘his good service before the lords and others of the [king’s] council and elsewhere and especially in the custody, registration and expedition of bills, requests and supplications of poor persons’; and that portion of the council’s work which dealth with requests from the poor, later to develop into the Tudor Court of Requests, received a considerable impetus during Richard’s reign.”

Given the number of corroborative primary sources, the observations contained in Langton’s letter are all the more reasonable and credible, rather than the product of a partisan’s over-enthusiastic “spin” on what he had witnessed.

(7) Any other factors that bear on believability.

Finally, we should determine whether Langton was unduly impressed by the pomp and ceremony of the royal progress, and whether he had demonstrated a good judgement of people in his life.  Although from an undistinguished family, Langton was no stranger to pomp and ceremony – he’d traveled to the grandest courts in Europe and had witnessed their splendor. He was consecrated a bishop on September 7, 1483, a day before the investiture of the king’s son as Prince of Wales, which raises the interesting prospect that this may have been a part of the magnificent ceremonies that occurred in York. Langton, in his letter to Selling, described them a little disapprovingly as exemplars of sensual pleasure, so obviously he wasn’t that overawed.

One of Langton’s chief characteristics was that of a sincere educator, who placed a high priority on talent and intellect, rather than courtly display. As stated above, one of his students called him a Maecenas and, because of Langton’s patronage, was able to study in Italy and ultimately become the Dean of St. Paul’s. The student’s name was Richard Pace, and there is a lovely tale about how Langton discovered him:

There is happily a contemporary appreciation of [Thomas Langton] still extant. This occurs in a classical treatise of Richard Pace on the advantages of Greek studies, printed at Basle at the famous press of John Froeben in 1517. Pace began life as an office boy to the Bishop at Winchester. Langton observed his genius for music, and in the musician prospected the scholar: the boy was meant for greater things. Forthwith he packed him off to Padua to be taught Greek and Latin in the best school of the place, and paid all the expenses of his education. The work was still incomplete in 1500-1, at the Bishop’s death—Pace was then at the university of Bologna — but provision was made in his will for a further seven years’ study. The Bishop’s discernment was justified. Pace became distinguished in the New learning, and was a close friend of Colet and Erasmus, the latter of whom addressed to him a considerable proportion of his fascinating letters: he was employed by Henry VIII as private secretary, and, among a long list of ecclesiastical preferments, succeeded Colet in the deanery of St. Paul’s.”

Langton similarly went out of his way to support his nephews – but not all of them. He determined his nephew Robert Langton to be particularly talented and paid for his education in Italy, too. Robert went on to become a prebend at several cathedrals and a great benefactor to Queens College, Oxford. Langton seems to have had a good talent for discerning people’s abilities.


It is hoped that this analysis has elucidated some the arguments about the credibility of Langton’s September 1483 letter. Langton is a fascinating man not only because of his meteoric rise from a modest family, but also because of his avocation of the New Learning in England, showing that his homeland was not living in the “Dark Ages” while Italy was basking in the sun of the “Renaissance”.

Langton went on to serve Henry VII, but didn’t take an active part in his court, unlike fellow Westmorlander Richard Redman, Bishop of St. Asaph’s. There is some thinking that Langton was present at the Battle of Bosworth, being loyal to Richard III to the end, although there is no direct proof to confirm that. In the aftermath of Richard III’s death, he forfeited his temporalities as Bishop of Salisbury but by November 1485, had been restored to them. Henry VII first summoned him to parliament in 1487, and appointed him to commissions of the peace in Wiltshire, Hampshire and Surrey, which he served on through the end of his life. In 1493, Langton was translated to the wealthiest bishopric in England, that of Winchester where he now reposes in death. Despite this seal of approbation from the Tudor king, Langton continued to shun the court and focused on diocesan administration and on the musical education of children at his new school.  Perhaps he had seen enough of princely politics. The rebus he adopted for himself, representing a “long tone” and featuring prominently in his chantry’s fan vaults, suggests he had turned his gaze to matters more musical and spiritual.

Sources & Further Reading


C.A.J. Armstrong (ed.): “DOMINIC MANCINI’S THE USURPATION OF RICHARD THE THIRD”, Oxford University Press (1936)

Keith Dockray: “RICHARD III: A SOURCE BOOK”, Alan Sutton (1997)

Rhoda Edwards: “THE ITINERARY OF KING RICHARD III 1483-1485”, Richard III Society (1983)


Alison Hanham: “RICHARD III AND HIS EARLY HISTORIANS 1483-1535”, Clarendon Press Oxford (1975)

Michael Hicks: “RICHARD III”, The History Press (2009 reprint)


Rosemary Horrox & P.W. Hammond (eds.), “BRITISH LIBRARY HARLEIAN MANUSCRIPT 433”, Alan Sutton (1979)

Rosemary Horrox (ed.): “PARLIAMENTARY ROLLS OF MEDIEVAL ENGLAND 1275-1504, RICHARD III (1484-85)”, Boydell Press (2005)

Rosemary Horrox: “RICHARD III: A STUDY OF SERVICE”, Cambridge University Press (1989)

R.F. Isaacson: “THE EPISCOPAL REGISTERS OF THE DIOCESE OF ST DAVID’S 1397-1518, VOLUME II”, Society of Cymmrodorion (1917), (accessed 2 November 2016)

Paul Murray Kendall: “RICHARD THE THIRD”, W.W. Norton & Co. (1955)

A.R. Myers: “THE HOUSEHOLD OF EDWARD IV: THE BLACK BOOK AND THE ORDINANCE OF 1478”, Manchester University Press (1959)

Nicholas Pronay & John Cox (eds.): “THE CROWLAND CHRONICLE CONTINUATIONS 1459-1486”, Alan Sutton (1986)

Charles Ross: “RICHARD III”, University of California Press (1981)

John Rous, “THE ROUS ROLL”, Alan Sutton (1980, first published 1859)



Anne F. Sutton & P.W. Hammond (eds.): “THE CORONATION OF RICHARD III: THE EXTANT DOCUMENTS”, Alan Sutton (1983)

Edith Thompson (ed.): “WARS OF YORK AND LANCASTER 1450-1485”, London (1892)

D.P. Wright (ed.): “THE REGISTER OF THOMAS LANGTON, BISHOP OF SALISBURY 1485-93”, Canterbury and York Society (1985)

Journals and Biographical Dictionaries:

Percival Brown: “Thomas Langton and his Tradition of Learning”, Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society, new series, Vol. xxvi (1926), pp. 150-246 [, accessed 19 August 2016]

Cecil H. Clough: ‘Selling , William (c.1430–1494)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004); [, accessed 23 Oct 2016]

John Hare: “The Bishop and the Prior: demesne agriculture in medieval Hampshire”, Agricultural History Review, vol. 54, no. II, pp 187-212 [citations to M. Page, ‘William Wykeham and the management of the Winchester estate, 1366–1404’, in W. M. Ormrod(ed.), FOURTEENTH-CENTURY ENGLAND, vol. 3 (2004), p. 108]

Ken Hillier: “The Rebellion of 1483: A study of sources and opinions,” The Ricardian, (September 1982)

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