Debunking the Myths – Richard III’s Execution of a Political Lampoonist

Ripon Cathedral misericord

“And in another isle toward the south dwell folk of foul stature and of cursed kind that have no heads. And their eyes be in their shoulders.” – Sir John Mandeville (14th c.)

It’s funny how myths and legends become a part of history. This column – Debunking the Myths – is devoted to exploring the many false rumors, tales, and impressions that have embedded themselves into our modern perception of Richard III and his times.  Join us, as we hunt down the Loch Ness monsters, Sasquatches, and Blemyae that have roamed the Ricardian historical landscape for centuries.  No need to bring a weapon.  Just bring an open mind!

Today’s blog is about the infamous lampoon posted on the doors of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral in July 1484, during the second year of Richard III’s reign.  Even the casual reader of Ricardian history can recite it from memory:

“The Cat, the Rat, and Lovel our Dogge,
Ruleth all Englande under a Hogge.”

While not mentioning the King and his councilors by name, the lampoon references their well-known heraldic badges, describing Richard III’s white boar device as a “hogge”.  Conventional history tells us that Richard III, being insecure on his throne, was so incensed and threatened by lampoons of this nature that he indicted its author – William Collingbourne – for high treason.  The penalty paid by Collingbourne was severe.  He was hanged, castrated and disemboweled, and there is a poetic account that he was heard to say “oh Lord Jesus, yet more trouble!” as his bowels were ripped from his body.  The effect that ripples from this incident is the perception that Richard III was a petty, paranoid and tyrannical man who brooked no tolerance for political free speech.

But, hold on a second.  There’s a couple of important facts that are missing from this historical Blemyah.  The first of them is that Collingbourne was not brought up on charges of high treason until October or November, 1484, more than three months after the doggerel was posted.  As written by Kenneth Hillier, “On 29 November a commission of oyer and terminer was set up; it included the Dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk; the Earls of Nottingham and Surrey; Viscounts Lovell and Lisle, and others ‘touching certain treasons and offences’ committed by ‘William Colyngbourne late of Lydeyard co. Wilts esquire, and John Turburvyle late of Fyremayne, co. Dorset, esquire’.” 1  If the offense forming the basis of the indictment was the poem, why would the King delay the prosecution?  Surely, speech that countenanced the death of the King, or diminished his regality by exciting the people against him, was a sufficient and well-settled basis to bring immediate charges.  So why did the King wait?

It turns out that Collingbourne was, in fact, plotting for the overthrow of Richard III and the evidence of this probably did not emerge until after the lampoon was posted.  According to James Gairdner’s RICHARD III biography, the charge against him was that he, amongst others, offered a certain Thomas Yate a sum of money to go over to Brittany to Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, and his adherents, Dorset, Cheyney, and others, and

“To declare unto them that they should do very well to return into England with all such power as they might get before the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist next ensuing [October 18]; for so they might receive all the revenues of the realm due at the feast of St. Michael [September 29] next before the feast of St. Luke.  And that if the said Earl of Richmond with his part-takers, following the counsel of the said Colyngbourne, would arrive at the haven of Poole in Dorsetshire, he the said Colyngbourne and other his associates would cause the people to rise in arms and to levy war against King Richard, taking part with the said earl and his friends, so that all things should be at their commandments.  Moreover, to move the said earl to send the said John Cheyney unto the French king to advertise him that his ambassadors sent into England should be dallied with, only to drive off the time till the winter season were past, and that then in the beginning of summer King Richard meant to make war into France, invading that realm with all puissance; and so by this means to persuade the French king to aid the Earl of Richmond and his part-takers in their quarrel against King Richard.” 2

Collingbourne was tried before peers of the realm, mentioned above, at the Guildhall in London in December.  It is difficult to imagine a more serious charge, which included not only giving counsel to Henry Tudor as to the optimal time and place to make his invasion, but also conspiring with the French King to give assistance to Tudor’s effort!  According to some scholars, what motivated Collingbourne to plot against Richard III was the fact that he had lost some offices that he had held previously, including one in service to the King’s mother.  Also, as mentioned by Mr. Hillier, Collingbourne’s home in Wiltshire had “always been notoriously Lancastrian, and it was one of the centres of the 1483 uprising” suggesting that he was also involved in Buckingham’s earlier rebellion.  In other words, Collingbourne was something of a known enemy of the state.

Lastly, what are we to make of the notion that Richard III was so insecure on his throne that even lampoons like Collingbourne’s threw him into a state of high panic?  In all honesty, I never thought the poem was all that subversive; it merely names the King and his men by their well-known badges, although calling Richard’s boar a “hogge” was certainly intended to give offense.  However, we have to cast off our modern notions of free speech, and confront the fact that earlier English kings – even those who were very secure on their throne – did not countenance attacks on their regality.  This is abundantly clear in the treason indictments made against two commoners, Thomas Gate and Harry Mase, during the reign of Henry VI. 3  Both made statements – in taverns of all places – that mocked his newly-minted Noble coin which showed the King as commander of the “ship of state”.  Gate and Mase said Henry VI did not deserve to be called a ship’s commander but rather a sheep, not only because of his passivity and deference to overweening lords, but also because he was losing the lands that his father, Henry V, had so gloriously won in France.  Gate and Mase made their statements in the 1440s, well before there was a Yorkist challenge to the Lancastrian claim to the throne, and well before the first conflict of the Wars of the Roses at St. Albans in 1455.

And yet, notwithstanding the above, the historian Edward Hall (1497–1547), in his chronicle UNION OF THE TWO ILLUSTRE FAMILIES OF LANCASTER AND YORK, accuses Richard III of executing Collingbourne merely “for making a small rhyme“, an accusation repeated by subsequent historians.  Somehow they forgot some details.  See how easy it is to create a myth?

What do you think?  Was Richard III being overly paranoid and tyrannical by indicting Collingbourne?  Was the English public unaccustomed to such heavy-handedness by the King, and thus becoming disenchanted with his rule? Are there other historical myths and Blemyae that you’re aware of and think should be debunked?  Share your thoughts and ideas in the Comments below!

For an interesting discussion about the concept of high treason, check out Annette Carson’s book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND, pp. 27-33 (2015).

Footnotes:


  1. Kenneth Hillier, “William Colyngbourne”, RICHARD III – CROWN AND PEOPLE (J. Petre, ed.) (A selection of articles from THE RICARDIAN, the journal of the Richard III Society, March 1975 to December 1981). 
  2. James Gairdner, HISTORY OF THE LIFE AND REIGN OF RICHARD THE THIRD (Cambridge Univ. Press, 1898, 1968 ed.) 
  3. Helen Wicker, “The Politics of Vernacular Speech:  Cases of Treasonable Language, c. 1440-1453” (Brepols). 
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16 thoughts on “Debunking the Myths – Richard III’s Execution of a Political Lampoonist

  1. That doggerel has to be one of the sorriest, lamest attempts at political satire ever. “Ha ha ha, I will now call my political opponents animal nicknames based on their family names or coat of arms! Did I tell them or what!” Uh… okay…

    It’s really absurd that anyone could seriously believe someone would feel threatened by that even if they were the most paranoid and insecure person in the world. Oh, the doggerel says the king is… ruling the country? And has a boar as his coat of arms? And his close associates are men with names Catesby and Ratcliffe and a man who has a wolf as his coat of arms? Why, what new, shocking and damaging information!

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    • Thank you for your comments, timetravellingbunny. I agree that it is absurd on some level that the doggerel by Collingbourne would have been viewed as subversive, especially since it said that Lovel, Catesby and Radcliffe were *serving* the King. Of course, in the 15th century it was an insult to call someone a Hog. So, it was a rather lame poem, but as I tried to point out in my blog, people under Henry VI were also indicted for high treason for calling the king a sheep. Ultimately, Collingbourne was a political discontent, and was actively engaging in a plot to overthrow Richard III, so the “shock” of historians about this event seems extraordinarily out of proportion.

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      • Calling Henry a sheep *was* serious political criticism – it implied he was incompetent (which was true). Calling someone a pig, swine or anything of the sort is seen as insulting today as well, but can hardly be seen as politically subversive or dangerous. Maybe if someone had called Edward IV something pig-like, that could have been seen as criticism of his lifestyle – but when applied to Richard III, did it really mean anything, except “I don’t like him, so I’m going to call him something insulting”? One wonders what terrible and tyrannical things Richard did, if that was the best Collingbourne could come up with!

        The important part is that Collingbourne was executed for high treason because he did, in fact, commit high treason – contacting a pretender to the throne in exile to call for an invasion with assistance from a foreign country certainly qualifies as such. If it does not, I’m not sure what does. It’s certainly not about the freedom of speech.

        But yes, additionally it is also funny how so many are able to either misrepresent or blow out of proportion anything that Richard III did, as if he was terrible because he didn’t meet the 21st century democratic ideal (yes, he executed someone by hanging, drawing and quartering; so did Elizabeth I, and every other medieval/Renaissance English monarch) while ignoring and glossing over similar or worse things done by other English monarchs of the same period. Including the “saintly” Henry VI (I’m sure he wasn’t ordering many things himself, but he sure let them all happen; being incompetent and disinterested is often just as bad as being cruel and tyrannical).

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  2. On calling someone a pig or a hog: Yes, you’re right, if it had been used against Edward IV, it probably would have been a criticism of his lasciviousness or promiscuity. For Richard III, I think the insult is not only to mock his prominent badge, but also to suggest that there was something unclean (Biblical), uncivilized and/or brutish about him. John Gower called Wat Tyler the “boar hogge from Kent” in describing his leadership of the Peasant’s Rebellion. When the Southampton Plot was uncovered, one of its conspirators – hoping for some laxity in his punishment – said that Mortimer was nothing but a “hog”, suggesting that he was like one of those comedic anthropomorphic wood carvings you see in church misericords, etc., where the social order is turned topsy-turvy. There’s a historian at the Univ of Texas – Brownsville who wrote a whole book on Swine Imagery and Symbolism in Medieval England. I know, what an odd subject to address, but it turned out to be really fascinating. Anyway, thanks for the comments!

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  3. i agree that it is misleading to say that Collingbourne was executed merely for writing and posting the rhyme. However, it is equally misleading to imply that the rhyme had nothing to do with it. He was charged with treason, but the charge included communicating with Henry Tudor and writing the rhyme.
    So there were two items on the list of offences.
    It seems that earlier rebels had their sentences commuted – Turbeville was imprisoned.
    Richard was using his own propaganda and was also very concerned by the propaganda being circulated against him.
    Hicks provides the text of proclamations issued by Richard in this period ordering the arrest of those posting seditious messages. He also orders that such notices should be destroyed without reading.
    One proclamation is specifically to the City of York.

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    • Thank you for your comments. I agree that Collingbourne was executed for *both* conspiring in the plot *and* for posting seditious petitions, sedition being an act of high treason, even under Henry VI as I tried to point out with the two fellows who called him a “sheep”. I think the point I was trying to make was directed to historians such as Edward Hall and others who seemed to say it was *only* the doggerel that formed the basis of the treason charge. As you know, many people have this false impression.

      Does Hicks address why there was a delay between the July posting of the rhyme and the November 29 indictment against Collingbourne? Kenneth Hillier suggests that the letter written by Collingbourne was actually written in 1484 as opposed to 1483, and his reasoning makes a lot of sense.

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    • That would be the proclamation to the City of York from 5 April 1485, no? Is that the one?

      In other words, 9 months after Collingbourne’s doggerel? I would very much doubt that the sedition this proclamation was against was anything as ridiculous as comparing the king and his close associates to animals based on their names and coat of arms, without even any real political criticism, or that Richard was so worried about this that he was upset almost a year later (when he had so many really serious things to be upset about). What seditious talk was Richard more likely to be upset about in April 1485? That was just a few weeks after queen Anne’s death, and Richard’s public appearance in London to deny of the rumors – ones that he really was upset about – that he was intending to marry his niece and couldn’t wait for his wife to die to do so, with the threat of arresting people who continue to spread these rumors. We know that they didn’t stop, since the Croyland Chronicler was very happy to provide his readers with them in late 1485, when Henry VII had become king, and a number of foreign chroniclers kept writing about them, including Molinet who went as far to claim that Elizabeth of York had had a child by Richard (!).

      Unfortunately for people like Mr. Hicks or Mr. Higginbottom, who seem to think that this shows what a terrible tyrant Richard was (while none of the other monarchs of the period were tyrants, even though none of them were willing to allow their subjects to publicly insult them), that actually wouldn’t fall into the “free speech” category even by modern standards. Today, if you printed something of that nature about any person, not just someone in a high ranking political position, you may find yourself sued for libel and have to pay large fines (or go to prison if you can’t).

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  4. WhiteLily, the letter is a little odd. It recommends actions to Henry that actually occurred in 1483 that it would seem inadvisable to repeat. On the other hand the letter can not be genuine and have been written in 1483 – because Cheney did not join the other exiles in Brittany until late in that year. So Cheney was not at Henry Tudor’s disposal to send to France until 1484.

    At that time places it at a time when Henry’s position was particularly weak. The exiles were a cost to the Bretons and the Breton treasurer had decided that the cause of their independence was best served by a deal with Richard to arrest Henry and hand him over to Richard.

    With respect to TimeTravellingBunny’s reply, this seems to be entirely emotional – and assumes facts about the nature of the posted items that are not in evidence. If they were indeed about Richard’s relationship with his neice, I can guarantee they were not part of the Tudor propaganda machine. When Henry himself heard of the rumours he was distraught – he feared that it would drain away most of his exiles who were loyal to Edward’s children.

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    • “…this seems to be entirely emotional – and assumes facts (…) that are not in evidence…”
      “When Henry himself heard of the rumours he was distraught – he feared that it would drain away most of his exiles who were loyal to Edward’s children”

      I guess when it comes to Henry, we can assume his emotional states and opinions that there is no evidence of?

      Of course we can’t know for sure what was the “seditious” content. We can only speculate and make reasonable assumptions. Which is what you’re doing as well. Your comment contains several assumptions, such as that the “seditious” content must have been engineered by Henry Tudor or with his consent (unlikely) or even was directly linked to him (we don’t know that) or that the rumors about Richard and his niece were not something Richard would have considered seditious or made efforts to suppress (definitely not true, since we know what his reaction to the rumors was, that he publicly denied them and seemed very angry and upset when he did that, and that he threatened to arrest anyone who continued to spread them). How the rumors started is not clear and it’s still being speculated about. But the idea that these rumors would have been beneficial to Richard and engineered more support for him is a pretty bizarre one, IMO. Not only were uncle-niece relationships considered incest and outrageous in England (even though the pope granted dispensations to the royals on the continent for avunculate marriages, multiple times), but it implied that Richard was a usurper and so obviously a usurper that he supposedly even considered himself such and was going to drop all pretense that Edward’s children were illegitimate (i.e. that his own ascension was legitimate), treat Elizabeth of York as the true heir of his brother, and marry her to strengthen his hold to the throne because that was supposedly the only way to do so. Not to mention the added rumors that he was such a ruthless and terrible person that he couldn’t wait for his ill wife to die (or even helped her to die). That rumor was exactly something Richard’s enemies would have loved, as evidenced by the fact that, while he was so upset by them, chroniclers hostile to Richard, from the Croyland chronicler, to Henry VII’s court historian Polydore Vergil, made full use of them and treated them as truth and evidence of Richard’s ruthless, usurping ways.

      Of course, we could speculate that Richard was really so upset by a silly doggerel that merely called him hog because his coat of arms was the white boar, 9 months after it had appeared, or we could speculate that he was upset by a really awful and damaging rumor that we know was circulating in March-April 1485 and continued to circulate, and that we know Richard was upset by and publicly denied and tried to suppress.

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    • David, you suggest an argument that was originally posed by James Gairdner (b. 1828), a Victorian historian whose theories have been later submitted to intense review. Gairdner argued that the letter by Collingbourne could only have been written in 1483, but never went so far as to say the letter was not “genuine” or somehow concocted.

      More recent historians, namely Rosemary Horrox at Cambridge amongst others, have accepted the genuineness of the letter, and have dated it to the Summer of 1464. (Horrox, “Richard III: A study of service, pp. 275-6.) According to Horrox: “On 10 July [1484], in London’s Porsoken ward, William Collingbourne and others conspired to send Thomas Yate to the rebels in Brittany to incite Tudor to invade England on St Luke day (18 October). Eight days later, on 18 July, Collingbourne committed one of the most famous treasons of the Middle Ages by preparing bills and writings in rhyme and ballads of seditious language and pinning them to the doors of St Paul’s. Although the conspirators chose London in which to publicize their opposition to the regime, the heart of the conspiracy was again in the west country. Collingbourne himself was a Wiltshire man, a former servant of Edward IV, who had lost his place in local affairs in the aftermath of the 1483 rebellion. His plan was for Tudor to land in Poole, his arrival to coincide with a rising in his favour organized by Collingbourne and his ally John Turberville of Frairmayne (Dorset), a kinsman of bishop John Morton of Ely. How much came of this is unclear. The commission of oyer and terminer to investigate Collingbourne’s treason was not issued until 29 November, after the date of the projected invasion, but there is no sign that Tudor acted on the conspirators’ suggestion. The early autumn was, however, marked by continuing unrest in England. On 29 September Richard ordered one of his yeoman of the crown, Thomas Grayson, to arrest certain persons in the west parts of the realm who had been detected in action ‘against their natural duty and liegeance’.”

      P. M. Kendall’s analysis of the letter’s date has been widely accepted. It goes as follows: “Gairdner insists that Collingbourne must have committed his treasonable acts in July of 1483, but his argument is tortuous and unconvincing. The fact that on July 10 Collingbourne asked Yate to go to Brittany, whereas by that time in 1484 Henry had escaped to France, is far easier to explain than the incongruities which arise if it supposed that this proposal was made in 1483. It is quite probable that Collingbourne had not yet learned of Henry’s departure from Brittany. There is no reason to believe that the Marquess of Dorset, mentioned as being with Henry at this time, was in Brittany in the summer of 1483, and the reference to Richard’s trifling with the French ambassadors fits only the summer of 1484, when Langton was negotiating with the government of Charles VIII. Louis XI neither sent nor showed any intention of sending envoys to England in July of 1483. Collingbourne advised Henry to invade England before St Luke’s day (October 18), but that is something quite different from Henry’s having agreed with Buckingham and the Woodvilles in 1483 to land on St Luke’s day; and though Collingbourne counselled Henry to disembark at Poole, there is no reason to suppose that he would not suggest a landing where a landing had been attempted before. The absence of any reference to the Woodville conspiracies in the southern counties does not necessarily clinch the case for 1484, since July 10 is only 4 days after Richard’s coronation; but the sum of the evidence supports the accuracy of the date of the indictment. Gairdner’s citation of Richard’s allusion to Collingbourne as a former officer of his mother’s in a letter of June, 1484, in no way supports the thesis that Collingbourne’s activities took place in 1483; it indicates only the Collingbourne had been known for a rebel for some time before he was apprehended and had probably been in hiding.” (Kendall, “Richard III”, p. 486)

      Charles Ross, in his biography of Richard III (pp. 202-203), states: “The major charge brought against the unfortunate William Collingbourne in 1484 was not his diffusion of the libellous lampoon on Richard and his advisers but the fact that he had been in treasonable correspondence with Henry Tudor, telling him that if Henry chose to land at Poole in Dorset before Michaelmas next, his well-wishers in England wold cause the people to rise in arms and levy war against Richard. Months later, on the eve of the invasion, messengers were slipping back and forth across the Channel exchanging messages and promises between Henry and several prominent Welshmen, notably Rhys ap Thomas and Sir Walter Herbert. Finally, according to an unsubstantiated Spanish source, he had been promised support by much more highly-placed persons. Whether such promises would ever be honoured could only be discovered by the test of direct action.”

      I am not aware of anyone who has claimed the 1484 indictment of Collingbourne was based on trumped up evidence about a conspiracy. The fact that Henry Tudor did not act on it, does not diminish its treasonous nature. But if you have any sources that suggest this was a false charge, then please do share them with me. For now, it appears the consensus of modern-day scholars agree that a conspiracy in 1484 was, indeed, afoot and that Collingbourne was deeply involved in it.

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  5. Thanks for that. It is good to have a reasoned debate. All the sources you quote have got some of the dates wrong. In 1484 there was preparation for a second invasion in Brittany, which started and was abandoned in the spring. Preparations began in March and ended in April. The Bretons were short of money and there was a sea war with England going on in the channel.

    Henry Tudor’s flight to France was much later – he arrived around 10 October (Dupuy). So that is irrelevant. There was no known planned invasion in the summer of 1484 – in fact, the Breton treasurer was beginnig to think the cause of their independence would be better served by a deal with Richard.

    What I find suspicious is the section advising Henry to contact France. In 1484 France was the big bad wolf trying to eat Brittany. The idea that the Duke would allow Henry to tip off the French to England’s bad intentions is frankly bizarre. He would be more likely to join in any conspiracy that weakened France or lessened its power. That section of the letter does nothing but incriminate – by naming a known traitor and the old enemy.

    As to the delay, I am not sure it is relevant. Both offences date from July so any attempt to highlight a delay relatinb to one offence applies equally to the other.

    On the question of whether the poem could be taken as seriously subversive, the answer is given by Richard himself. Why else would you include it in the charges?

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    • Yes, indeed, Richard did conclusively answer that by including it in the accusations. If it was anything really subversive, he certainly wouldn’t have wanted people to know about it.
      Not that this proof was needed, as the doggerel speaks for itself. If the best you can come up is call your political enemy an a pig because he has a wild boar as his coat of arms, you’re doing subversion wrong.

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  6. The source for my comments about Henry’s despair on hearing the rumour that Richard intended to marry Elizabeth is Skidmore’s Bosworth. His source is the original MS of Vergil.

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