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)



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)

Rosemary Horrox: ‘Rotherham , Thomas (1423–1500)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004) [, accessed 23 Oct 2016]

Jonathan Hughes, ‘Martyn, Richard (d. 1483)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [, accessed 27 Oct 2016]

David M. Luitweiler, “A King, A Duke, and A Bishop”, The Ricardian Register, Vol. XVIII, No. 4 (Winter, 2004), pp. 4-10.

John A. F. Thomson, ‘Woodville, Lionel (c.1454–1484)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004); online edn, Sept 2011 [, accessed 23 Oct 2016]

Susan L. Troxell: “Rulers, Relics and the Holiness of Power: A review”, The Ricardian Bulletin (December 2014), pp. 55-57 (transcription of Westminster Abbey Muniments, 9482, 7 July 1483, relating to the reliquary oil of Thomas à Becket, by T. Erik Michaelson)

D.P.  Wright: “Langton, Thomas (c.1430–1501)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press (2004); online edn, May 2009 [, accessed 23 Oct 2016]

Other Sources:

“Richard By His Contemporaries”, from Richard III Society website, (accessed 31 Oct 2016)

Model Civil Jury Instructions, District Courts of the Federal Court of Appeals, 3d Circuit (2010)

Overview – Federal Jury Instructions & Evidence, (accessed 1 November 2016)

Pattern Criminal Jury Instructions, Superior Courts of New York

The Mystery Man In The Vaux Passional

In 1921, a late medieval manuscript was donated to the National Library of Wales. It was a “passional”, a book recounting the sufferings of saints and martyrs, and contained two texts in medieval French: “La Passion de Nostre Seigneur” (The Passion of Our Lord), an account of the Passion of Christ, and “Le miroir de la mort” (The mirror of death), a religious poem by the Burgundian chronicler Georges Chastellain. The book had once been owned by Lady Joan Guildford (c. 1463-1538), nee Vaux, who served in the household of Elizabeth of York as governess to the Princesses Mary and Margaret Tudor, but it didn’t receive any special attention until 2012 when it was digitised to make it available on the internet.

When Dr Maredudd ap Huw, the library’s manuscripts librarian, examined the first miniature in the book, he realised that it appeared to show the family of Henry VII, including the future Henry VIII, mourning the death of his Queen, Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). Young Henry, who is shown slumped over his mother’s empty bed, was 11 years old at the time of her death, making this the earliest known depiction of him and certainly the most vulnerable. Also present are his sisters Margaret and Mary, dressed in mourning black, while the sovereign in the centre of the miniature appears to be an idealised version of their father, Henry VII. The bottom of the page bears the royal arms of England.


Dr ap Huw’s discovery catapulted the Vaux Passional to fame, but while the figures on the left of the miniature are now tentatively identified, the others remain shrouded in mystery. Most mysterious of all is the man at the centre who is handing a book to the King, so much so that Dr ap Huw has appealed to fellow historians and even members of the public for suggestions who he could be. Unfortunately, the response has been muted: apparently I was the only member of the public who contacted him. This post is a summary of my suggestions and replies I received from him and other experts.

Presentation Miniature Or Not?

At first glance, the scene appears to be a typical “presentation miniature”, a type of illustration which shows the author of a book – in this case the passional – or the person who commissioned the book presenting it to his patron – in this case, Henry VII. It was therefore initially assumed that the book had been owned by Henry before passing into Lady Guildford’s possession. As for the mystery man, since both texts contained in the book had been published before, he can’t be the author. He would therefore have to be the person who commissioned the book, but this is where it gets mysterious.

He is unlikely to be Sir Richard Guildford since he has been tentatively identified by Dr ap Huw as the man in the foreground holding the white wand of the office of Comptroller of the Household. The book bears an inscription by Lady Guildford’s son, Sir Henry Guildford, but he was only 14 years old at the time of Queen Elizabeth’s death and her brother was in France where he served as Lieutenant of Guînes. Dr ap Huw had hoped that the coats of arms on other pages of the manuscript would help to identify the mystery man, but they were found to point to Lady Guildford’s maternal ancestors, except those on the page depicting Christ’s resurrection, which belong to the family of Henry VII’s mother, the Beauforts. This discovery led Dr ap Huw to reconsider his original interpretation that the book had been commissioned for Henry VII and allow for the possibility that it had actually been intended for Lady Guildford. However, in that case the scene can’t be a presentation miniature as the recipient of the book is clearly a male monarch.

There are other clues supporting this conclusion. In presentation miniatures the person presenting the book is usually shown kneeling, but the mystery man is standing. The composition places him on roughly the same floor level as the king and his facial expression and body language are relaxed and confident – he looks more like an equal than a subject paying tribute to his sovereign. And the book in the picture is blue while the passional is bound in red velvet which, according to the library’s website, is the original binding. So if the book was commissioned for Lady Guildford then we should take a closer look at her and her family.

Who Was Joan Guildford?

The Guildfords are usually considered pillars of the Tudor regime. Lady Guildford was the daughter of William Vaux, who died fighting for Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou at Tewkesbury. Her mother Katherine Vaux, nee Peniston, served Queen Margaret as lady-in-waiting and was so loyal to her mistress that she is said to have shared her imprisonment and exile. Young Joan and her brother Nicholas were brought up in the household of Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, and Joan went on to become her lady-in-waiting. Nicholas is thought to have fought for Henry at Bosworth as he later did at Blackheath and Stoke, for which he was knighted. Lady Guildford’s husband, Sir Richard Guildford, was the son of Sir John Guildford, who had been Comptroller of the Household to Edward IV, but lost his position when Richard III became King. Both father and son took part in Buckingham’s rebellion and when it was quashed Sir Richard joined Henry in exile in Brittany. Like his brother-in-law, he is thought to have fought for him at Bosworth.

What’s less well known is that Lady Guildford’s Yorkist links went beyond her service in Elizabeth of York’s household and her father-in-law’s service to Edward IV. Despite her devotion to Margaret of Anjou, her mother had received an annuity of 20 marks from Richard III, the same amount she would later receive from Henry VIII. Her brother’s first wife was Elizabeth FitzHugh, daughter of Sir Henry FitzHugh and Alice Neville, niece of Cecily Neville, duchess of York and aunt to Anne Neville, Richard’s Queen. Both Elizabeth and her mother had served Queen Anne as ladies-in-waiting and her sister Anne FitzHugh was the wife of Francis Lovell, Richard’s friend and one of the leaders, together with Richard’s nephew John de la Pole, of the Lambert Simnel rebellion against Henry VII. Most strikingly, in 1504 Sir Richard Guildford was accused by one of Henry’s spies of supporting the Yorkist pretender Edmund de la Pole, John’s brother, whose household he had been trying to infiltrate. Meanwhile Lady Guildford’s brother, when asked about the possibility of de la Pole succeeding Henry, reportedly commented that he “should be sure to make his peace how so ever the world turn.” In 1505, Sir Richard was arrested and sent to prison, allegedly for not keeping proper accounts when Master of the Ordnance, and was only pardoned the following year. He died a few months later while on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that Lady Guildford’s loyalties were divided. Indeed, after her husband’s death she re-entered Margaret Beaufort’s household and in 1514 when Princess Mary married King Louis XII she accompanied her former charge to France. However, her immediate family certainly included people who had been part of the Yorkist King Richard III’s inner circle and had known him personally. I’ll come back to this later.

Who Is The Mystery Man?

Unlikely as it may seem, he looks remarkably like . . . Richard III. The hair style, texture and colour as well as facial features – prominent chin, down turned corners of the mouth and furrowed brow – are similar to Richard’s portraits from the Tudor period. These were created based on an established pattern and while book illustrations aren’t usually faithful portraits the miniature broadly follows it: allowing for the cartoonish style, the 3/4 perspective, facial features and even the frown line between his eye brows line up remarkably well. The position of his hands – holding a book rather than fiddling with his ring – and his facial expression – smiling instead of looking stern or sinister – are different, but he certainly looks more like Richard III than the idealised sovereign looks like Henry VII. Finally, the coat of arms on this page of the manuscript was used by both Henry and Richard: the royal arms of England.

The mystery man 1) superimposed on the Society of Antiquaries portrait 2), the Royal Collection portrait 3) and the NPG portrait 4)

So could this be Richard? According to the Richard III Society, there’s no precedent for depictions of a dead king handing a present to his living political enemy. This may be true of presentation miniatures, but a very similar scene is described in the epitaph of the alabaster tomb that Henry placed on Richard’s grave in 1494, almost 10 years after Bosworth. The exact wording of the epitaph as it appeared on the tomb is unclear as several different versions of it exist and all of them appear to have transcription errors. The Guildhall version, which has survived in Sir George Buck’s 17th century biography “THE HISTORY OF KING RICHARD THE THIRD”, reads:

”I, here, whom the earth encloses under various coloured marble,
Was justly called Richard the Third.
I was Protector of my country, an uncle ruling on behalf of his nephew.
I held the British kingdoms in trust, although they were disunited.
Then for just sixty days less two,
And Two summers, I held my sceptres.
Fighting bravely in war, deserted by the English,
I succumbed to you, King Henry VII.
But you yourself, piously, at your expense, thus honoured my bones
And caused a former king to be revered with the honour of a king
When in twice five years less four
Three hundred five-year periods of our salvation had passed.
And eleven days before the Kalends of September
I surrendered to the red rose the power it desired.
Whoever you are, pray for my offences,
That my punishment may be lessened by your prayers.”

The Wriothesley-Hawling-Sandford version of the epitaph is more critical of Richard2 but describes the transfer of royal power from him to Henry in equally amicable terms. Is this why the book in the miniature doesn’t look like the passional – because it isn’t a physical book, but Richard’s present to Henry?

The Red Rose Of Beaufort?

The surrender of power to the “red rose” who had “desired” it, as described in the epitaph, deserves closer scrutiny. Firstly, it’s an admission that Richard “surrendered” his power not of his own volition, but because someone else desired it – or, according to the Wriothesley-Hawling-Sandford version, was owed it as a right. But who is this red rose? Both John Ashdown-Hill and Thomas Penn have pointed out that, while the Plantagenets had been using rose emblems as far back as Eleanor of Provence, wife of Henry III, these tended to be gold or indiscriminate in colour and were often subordinate to other heraldic badges, such as Henry VI’s antelope. Until 1485 the only royal rose emblem was the white rose of York as used by Edward IV and Richard III.

When Henry VII married Elizabeth of York, he introduced the red-and-white Tudor rose, supposedly a fusion of his red rose of Lancaster, which however hadn’t really existed before, and her white rose of York. Henry’s instructions for the pageants with which the city of York was to receive him on his first progress of northern England in April 1486 included “a world desolate full of trees and flowers” and in it “a royal, rich, red rose conveyed by a vice, unto which rose shall appear another rich white rose, unto whom all the flowers shall lout and evidently give sovereignty, showing the rose to be principal of all flowers, and there upon shall come from a cloud a crown covering the roses.”3 In a scene not dissimilar to the one described in the epitaph, the pageant was then to show King Ebrauk, the mythical founder of York, salute Henry and “present unto the King the keys of the citie being thenheritaunce of the said Ebrauk yielding his title and crowne unto the King as moost glad of hym above all other.”4

Henry therefore created the Tudor rose almost immediately upon his accession to the throne, so it’s interesting that the passional, which dates from at least 17 years later, doesn’t contain a single one of these symbols of unity between the houses of Lancaster and York. There are plenty of other roses – most of them red, but also a blue rose and, in the decorative border, some white ones (alongside more red roses, violets, pansies and thistles) – but no red-and-white Tudor rose. Both Ashdown-Hill and A J Pollard have noted that Henry’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, used a red rose and suggested that the mythical red rose of Lancaster might therefore actually be a Beaufort emblem. The fact that the illustrations in the passional show not only red roses, but also portcullises, an emblem employed by the Beauforts including Lady Margaret, as well as the Beaufort arms would seem to support this theory.

The page depicting the resurrection of Christ alongside the Beaufort arms also shows a red dragon, a symbol which is strongly associated with Henry VII, who landed in Wales in 1485 flying a red dragon banner and claiming to fulfil the prophesy of Cadwallader, the mythical redeemer of Britain. The combination of the resurrection with the red dragon and the Beaufort arms seems to underline the epitaph’s message about the transfer of power from one dynasty to the other. Nevertheless, given Lady Guildford’s relationship to Margaret Beaufort, the proliferation of Beaufort emblems together with coats of arms associated with her own maternal ancestors again suggests that the passional was commissioned for her, rather than Henry – or his mother.


What Does It Mean?

If the mystery man is Richard III it would be one of the oldest surviving pictures of him aside from pen-and-ink sketches (the oldest portraits in the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Collection date from around 1504-1520) and the only one showing him smiling. Given that the “crookback” soubriquet had been around since at least the 1490s and by the time the Royal Collection portrait was created paintings were being actively “corrected” to fit this new image, it would also be unusual in that it shows him without deformities.

As we saw above, Lady Guildford had access to people who had seen Richard and would have known that his scoliosis was not visible under normal circumstances, such as her in-laws who had been ladies-in-waiting to Anne Neville, his Queen. Likewise Margaret Beaufort, in whose household Lady Guildford grew up and whom she served later in life, had played a prominent part at Richard’s and Anne’s coronation. And what about Elizabeth of York, Richard’s niece, in whose household Lady Guildford served as governess? It is highly unlikely that he wanted to marry her – he publicly denied the rumour and was in the process of negotiating a foreign marriage when he died – but she had spent time at his court and they seem to have been on friendly terms. One source for this is Elizabeth’s letter to John Howard, duke of Norfolk, in which she declared that her uncle “was her onely joy and maker in . . . Worlde, and that she was his . . . harte, in thoughts, in . . . and in all.” The original letter doesn’t survive, so we can’t be sure how accurately its content was summarised and the summary itself is damaged, but the tone is clear. Richard also appears to have given her two books as gifts. The first, Boethius’ “DE CONSOLATIONE PHILOSOPHIAE”, bears his motto “Loyalte me lye” and underneath it her signature. The other, “ROMAN DE TRISTAN”, is inscribed “Iste Liber constat Ricardo Duci Gloucestre” and on the same page in her handwriting “sans remevyr Elyzabeth”.

Of course, one English king is missing from the scene: where is Elizabeth’s brother, Edward V? The destruction of Titulus Regius by Henry VII in 1485 had reinstated all of Edward IV’s children to the rank of legitimate royal offspring, including him. Indeed, the harsher version of the epitaph accuses Richard of ruling on his behalf by broken faith – contradicting not only the epitaph’s assertion about the right owed to the “red rose”, but also Henry’s claim dating back to 1484 that he, Henricus Rex, was the rightful heir to the crown by “lineal inheritance”5, which bypassed the entire house of York. If the mystery man is Richard, the uncle who allegedly stole the crown from Edward and ordered his death, why is he depicted in such a benign way in a book belonging to a servant of his sister? After James Tyrell’s supposed murder confession, allegedly made in 1502, but mentioned for the first time in 1513, when both Elizabeth and Henry were dead? As so often, it seems that answering one question only leads to new ones!

Related Posts:

The King In The Lab – Body of Evidence

Sources And Further Reading:

National Library of Wales: “The Vaux Passional

History Extra: “Portrait may show young Henry VIII“, BBC History Magazine (2012)

Frederick Hepburn: “Earliest Portraiture of Richard III“, Richard III Society (2013)

John Ashdown-Hill: “THE LAST DAYS OF RICHARD III AND THE FATE OF HIS DNA”, Stroud (2013), pp. 101-5, 164-5, and plates 26, 27


Emily Kearns: “Richard III’s Epitaph”, THE RICARDIAN VOL. XXIV (2014), p.75-86.

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

A J Pollard: “THE WARS OF THE ROSES”, Palgrave Macmillan (2013)

Thomas Penn: “How Henry VII branded the Tudors“, The Guardian (2 March 2012)

Desmond Seward: “THE LAST WHITE ROSE: THE SECRET WARS OF THE TUDORS”, Constable (2010)

Tracy Bryce: “Sir James Tyrell – Hero or Villain?” (1999)

  1. A N Kincaid (ed.): “THE HISTORY OF KING RICHARD THE THIRD”, Alan Sutton (1979), p. 217-8, translated in John Ashdown-Hill: “THE LAST DAYS OF RICHARD III AND THE FATE OF HIS DNA”, Stroud (2013) 
  2. Emily Kearns: “Richard III’s Epitaph”, The Ricardian Vol. XXIV (2014), p.75-86. 
  3. York House Books 1461-1490, Vol. 6, Richard III and Yorkist History Trust (1991), p. 481 
  4. Ibid., p. 481-2 
  5. British Library Harleian MS 787, f.2, cited in Annette Carson: “RICHARD III – THE MALIGNED KING”, History Press (2013), p. 284 

Tales of a Ricardian Traveler – Debunking a Myth at Dartington Hall

Lady on Horseback

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

Dartington Hall, near Totnes in Devon and just southeast of Dartmoor National Park, represents a uniquely British form of historical contradiction. It is both medieval, having parts of a Grade I-listed late 14th century manor house, and modern, being the current home of the Schumacher College and formerly the site of a progressive coeducational boarding school which broke all the molds of English education and even attracted the attention of MI5. Today, it operates a hotel, restaurant and conference center, and has Grade II* listed gardens.

Our visit was prompted by the prospect of staying briefly in the house built between 1388-1400 by John Holland, first earl of Huntingdon and duke of Exeter. The Holland dukes of Exeter were themselves highly controversial figures and their history is closely intertwined with that of the Houses of York and Lancaster. We didn’t expect, however, that we’d discover an architectural feature that would refute one of the more commonplace myths of the “Wars of the Roses”.

Step-Brother to a King, Builder of a Great House

Approaching Dartington Hall, the first thing one notices is that it is not a fortified structure and was not built with a military purpose in mind. There are no battlements or curtain walls, no remnants of motte or bailey. There is an “entrance block” consisting of a two-story building with only doors instead of a portcullis. The visitor enters a large, green quadrangle, at the end of which is the magnificent Great Hall with its crenelated porch.

Dartington Hall

Plan of Dartington Hall from Anthony Emery’s text

Dartington Hall

14th c. Great Hall with Porch Entrance – Dartington Hall

Along the western edge of the quadrangle is a wing that contains several apartments and garderobes. Beyond the Great Hall was another quadrangle that faced a tiltyard or tournament grounds. In all, the impression is that this was a lavish residence for a very great lord who had numerous retainers and who liked to joust. Like Richard III, John Holland generates polarized opinions, with some viewing him as viciously capricious and others as valiant and misunderstood. The story of John Holland and his heirs, is an integral part of the conflicts between the “Red Rose of Lancaster” and the “White Rose of York”.

He was born one hundred years before Richard III, in 1352, the son of Joan, Countess of Kent, who later married the Black Prince. Thus, he was an older, half-brother to Richard II and part of the extended royal family. His early fame came as a soldier and jouster, but he also had a temper that could get him into trouble. In fact, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, his first “political act” was to murder a friar who had accused John of Gaunt of conspiring to kill the 17-year old Richard II. As a young man, Holland was very much under the sway of John of Gaunt, the latter being the senior uncle to the king and probably the wealthiest magnate in England, if not its most influential. Holland even seduced Gaunt’s daughter Elizabeth and got her pregnant before he married her. But his relationship with Gaunt cooled, and Richard II became his patron instead. The favor he received was so extravagant (and included an earldom and dukedom) that Holland memorialized it by having Richard II’s white hart badge constructed as a roof boss in the entrance porch at the great manor house he was building at Dartington Hall. Its location meant that every visitor who was received into his great hall would see Holland’s overt connection to the king.


Dartington Hall

Late 14th c. Roof Boss showing Richard II’s Badge on Cinquefoil Rose

From Royal Patronage to Treason

Things would not go well for Holland’s new patron, however. When Richard II and Holland returned from a military campaign in Ireland in 1399, they were greeted with troops gathered by Gaunt’s son, Henry of Bolingbroke, who forced the king’s abdication. Holland attended the Parliament which formalized Richard II’s deposition, and attended the coronation of Bolingbroke as Henry IV – the first Lancastrian king. While he officially renounced his allegiance to Richard II, Holland suffered the loss of many lands and titles previously given to him, and hardly three months had passed before he was conspiring with others to assassinate Henry IV and restore Richard II in the “Epiphany Rising”. The plot was foiled, Holland fled, but he was caught and executed without trial by one of Henry IV’s allies.

John Holland lost his life at the hands of Henry IV’s Lancastrian faction.  So, one might ask, why does the Dartington Hall roof boss depict the “Red Rose of Lancaster”? Does it represent a contradictory tribute to both of Holland’s patrons, Gaunt and Richard II?

One explanation lies in the 20th century restoration of Dartington Hall. Having fallen into rack and ruin, the property was purchased by Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst in 1925, and they retained a well-credential architect to restore and modernize it. While working on the porch to the great hall, they discovered the roof boss which also helped to determine it was built during the last decade of Richard II’s reign. The engorged (chained) white hart, or white hind, was a well-known badge adopted by the king in the late 1380s; it would come to be associated with him in the following century and even used by the Yorkists to symbolize their claim as rightful heirs to Richard II. It is most prominently displayed in the “Edward IV Roll”, a genealogical document published in 1461 following Edward IV’s defeat of Henry VI at Towton.


Edward IV Roll

Edward IV Roll – Showing Richard II’s Badge at Mid- & Lower Right


The Dartington boss depicts Richard II’s badge on top of a five-petaled or “cinquefoil” heraldic rose, a symbol that by the 20th century had become synonymous with the “Wars of the Roses”. Notably, there was no pigment left on the roof boss when it was discovered, so it was gilded and painted with colors they thought would have been suitable. That they painted the heraldic rose red was most likely because of the association of the red rose with the House of Lancaster. This association was made famous in a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI Part I in which Somerset (a Lancastrian) and York argue in the Temple garden, and they pick, respectively, a red rose and a white rose to represent their competing interests. It has been part of historical mythology ever since. Undoubtedly, the Dartington Hall restoration team were aware of this mythology, and they were probably aware of the connections that later developed between the second and third dukes of Exeter and the Lancastrian kings of England.

Loyal to Lancaster, Married to a Yorkist

Following his execution in 1400, Holland was succeeded by his son John, who styled himself the earl of Huntingdon and would later receive the title of duke of Exeter from Henry VI by virtue of his loyal service. John fought at Agincourt with distinction and was on the tribunal which tried and sentenced to death those accused of the Southampton Plot. One of those to be executed was Richard III’s grandfather, the earl of Cambridge. Despite his pedigree, he was poor in resources and never had adequate funds to support his station in life. Nevertheless, he served on the royal council, was present for Henry VI’s coronation in France, served on the tribunal that declared Eleanor Cobham a witch, and was able to marry himself to high-born widows, including a Mortimer. In all, he was a solid Lancastrian, but died in 1447 before a series of crises arose from Henry VI’s mental incapacity and political divisions with the third duke of York. He also lived to see his son and heir, Henry, marry Anne, the duke of York’s eldest daughter, in 1446.

Henry and Anne had probably one of the strangest marriages of the day, a union of Lancastrian and Yorkist children, one whose father had ordered the execution of the other’s grandfather. Henry Holland was in the line of succession to the childless Henry VI in 1446 because he was a great-grandson of John of Gaunt. This made him an appealing marriage prospect, so York was willing to pay the destitute Holland 4,500 marks for the privilege. Anne was only 6 years old at the time; Henry was 15. They had one child, a daughter called Anne, but their marriage was a disaster. Holland was cruel and violent, and remained a staunch Lancastrian. After the birth of their daughter, they lived separately and Anne took on a lover, Thomas St Leger. Holland fought for Henry VI at the Battle of Barnet and was left seriously injured, believed to be dead. He somehow crawled to a nearby abbey and managed to survive. His marriage did not. Anne was granted a divorce in 1472 and she married St Leger. Holland served in Edward IV’s 1475 military campaign to France, but on his ship back to England, he fell overboard in the Channel and drowned to death, some saying he had been forced overboard at the order of the Yorkist king.

Following the death of Exeter, Dartington Hall passed to his former wife Anne, who was now married to St Leger.  St Leger was a Yorkist under Edward IV but betrayed Richard III in October, 1483 when he conspired with the duke of Buckingham to remove him from the throne. By this time, Anne of York had already died. St Leger was executed, attainted, and his estates – including Dartington Hall – reverted to Richard III as crown property. When Richard III was killed at Bosworth, Dartington was given as a life-estate to Henry VII’s mother, Margaret Beaufort, who apparently never visited but did derive income from the estate. It reverted to Henry VIII as a crown possession upon her death. Thus, Dartington Hall was owned, at different times, by people who represented almost all the factions comprising the “Wars of the Roses”.

Is that the Red Rose of Lancaster?

It might be tempting to see the Dartington heraldic rose as the “Red Rose of Lancaster”, but there is a significant problem with that theory. It was built in the last decade of the 14th century, too early to have any associations with the “Wars of the Roses”, which at the earliest would be dated to Richard II’s deposition in 1399.  We can also rule out its construction in the 15th century. The second and third dukes of Exeter were devoted to the Lancastrian kings and would have no reason to display the badge of a monarch who they had deposed.  Dartington Hall was possessed by the Yorkist, St Leger, from 1475-1483, but there is no indication that he initiated any building projects there. And while the Tudors owned the estate from 1485 on, there is similarly no evidence that they made any renovations to the Great Hall or its porch, and there is still no further evidence of the Tudors combining the badge of Richard II with the Lancastrian red rose.  Therefore, the only conclusion to be reached is that the Dartington roof boss contains imagery that contemporaries of Richard II associated with him, including the rose.

Cinquefoil roses were used by Plantagenet royalty in diverse circumstances, not necessarily all heraldic. Although there is some controversy as to when the rose first became a royal English badge, the modern thinking is that Henry III’s queen, Eleanor of Provence, brought it with her. Both sons of Henry III and Eleanor used rose badges of uncertain color; it is said that Edward I’s was gold with a green stem and Edmund “Crouchback”‘s was red. Edward III’s sixth Great Seal employed roses as background detail. The effigy of the Black Prince at Canterbury Cathedral incorporates gold roses on his armour and on the lower edge of the tester over his tomb. John of Gaunt gave St. Paul’s Cathedral a bed powered with decorative red roses, and Henry IV’s tomb effigy at Canterbury Cathedral has blue roses decorating his mantle. Coinage produced during Henry IV’s reign briefly employed a rose figure as a stop between words. All of this suggests that the device of the rose, of various colors, was generally employed from the time of Henry III through his great-grandson Edward III and his heirs. There was no specific association between John of Gaunt or his sons and the color red.

In fact, while there is a long-standing belief that the Earls of Lancaster adopted the red rose badge ever since Edmund “Crouchback” first used it, there is no contemporary 14th or 15th century evidence that the House of Lancaster followed this precedent. In his seminal article, “The Red Rose of Lancaster?” published in The Ricardian (June 1996), Dr John Ashdown-Hill demonstrated that the first account of the red rose being associated with Lancaster came early in the reign of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, as part of a visual propaganda to cast him as a unifier between two dynastic houses symbolized by red and white roses. But, as Ashdown-Hill observes: “None of the three Lancastrian kings can be proved to have used such an emblem, even if they were entitled to it, and this is in striking contrast to the white rose badge of York, for which ample contemporary evidence can be provided.” Portraits of Henry IV, V and VI are either devoid of any rose badge or were painted well into the Tudor period. A Tudor-period book depicts Henry IV’s battle standard as having red roses on a white background, but this has never been authenticated. The same is true for a Tudor-period account of Henry V’s funeral hearse, which allegedly had a valence of red roses. Indeed, when Henry VI briefly regained his throne in 1470-71, he removed Edward IV’s heraldic rose and sunburst mint marks on coinage and replaced them with a fleur de lis.

Dartington Hall’s roof boss substantiates Dr Ashdown-Hill’s proposition that the rose was not a peculiarly Lancastrian badge before or during the “Wars of the Roses”.  Richard II was not the Earl or Duke of Lancaster, and was not on particularly good terms with Gaunt or Bolingbroke in his last decade of life.  The only sound conclusion one can draw is that the cinquefoil rose was one of Richard II’s devices, perhaps not as well known, but the memory of this – like much of history – was rewritten by the victorious Tudors.


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John Ashdown-Hill, “The Red Rose of Lancaster?” The Ricardian, June 1996, pp. 406-420.

John Ashdown-Hill, WARS OF THE ROSES (Amberley, 2015)

Henry Bedingfeld, Peter Gwynn-Jones, HERALDRY (Brompton, 1993)

Anthony Emery, “Dartington Hall, Devonshire”,

Griffiths, R. A.. “Holland , John, first duke of Exeter (1395–1447).” R. A. Griffiths In OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2008. (accessed August 2, 2016)

Hicks, Michael. “Holland, Henry, second duke of Exeter (1430–1475).” Michael Hicks In OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, online ed., edited by David Cannadine. Oxford: OUP, 2004. (accessed August 2, 2016)

Stansfield, M. M. N.. “Holland, John, first earl of Huntingdon and duke of Exeter (c.1352–1400).” M. M. N. Stansfield In OXFORD DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, edited by H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: OUP, 2004. Online ed., edited by David Cannadine, January 2008. (accessed August 2, 2016)