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

Maximilian exhibit-190

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

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

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

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

Maximilian exhibit-179

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Text and Photographs © Susan Troxell, 2020

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

Notes & Sources:

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

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

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

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

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

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

This post investigates another aspect of the popular belief that upon Edward IV’s untimely death his brother Richard, duke of Gloucester conspired to usurp the throne from his nephew, as recently addressed in our piece about the Edward V coins. Originally my fellow loon and I were unaware of each other’s research, so we were surprised to discover how well our findings supported each other!

On 10 and 11 June 1483, Richard wrote to his affinity in the North and asked for troops to support him against the Woodvilles who, he claimed, were plotting his destruction. On 22 June Ralph Shaa preached his “bastard slips” sermon, followed by similar speeches by the duke of Buckingham, and on 26 June a quasi-parliamentary assembly of the Three Estates of the Realm – the nobles, bishops and representatives of the commons who had come to London for the coronation and subsequent first Parliament of Edward V – offered Richard the crown in place of his nephew. Allegedly Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, had come forward and testified that the boy’s father, Edward IV, had secretly entered into a legally binding marriage contract with Lady Eleanor Butler, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury, who was still alive when he, again secretly, married his queen, Elizabeth Woodville. This second marriage was therefore invalid, which meant that young Edward – along with all his siblings – was illegitimate and couldn’t inherit his father’s title.

This was a key turning point: Richard had been staunchly loyal to his brother and all surviving evidence suggests that up until mid-June he had every intention of pressing ahead with his nephew’s coronation. He had sworn allegiance to him, spent the month and a half since his arrival in London preparing robes and food, issued letters of summons for the 40 esquires who were to receive the knighthood of the Bath on the occasion and even paid £800 of his own money towards the royal household, which, according to an analysis by Dr. Rosemary Horrox, was on the verge of bankruptcy. He also minted Gold Angels and other coinage in young Edward’s name. To mint valuable gold coins for a king you’re planning to depose at the earliest opportunity seems unnecessarily wasteful, especially when your treasury is empty.

Moreover, Richard’s political future in his nephew’s government seemed secure: the speech drafted by Chancellor John Russell for Edward V’s first Parliament proposed not only to extend his Protectorate beyond the coronation, but to expand its remit from keeping law and order to in the future also have “tutele and oversight of the king’s most royal person during his years of tenderness”, effectively making him regent. This may have been a break with the traditional division of power between protector, council and guardian of the king, as Annette Carson has concluded, but it wasn’t a partisan move on Richard’s part or evidence of his ambition. According to the Crowland chronicle part of the council had been arguing for it all along:

“The more prudent members of the council, however, were of the opinion that guardianship of so youthful a person, until he should reach the years of maturity, ought to be utterly forbidden to his uncles and brothers on his mother’s side.”

This concern led directly to the decision to limit Edward V’s escort from Ludlow to London to 2000 men. At this point, Richard was still in Yorkshire.

Nevertheless, some people – including Dr. Horrox, who in her ODNB of Richard assumes that he “chose to end” his protectorate which, she acknowledges, was a “period of harmony” – believe that the sudden revelation of the precontract was too convenient to be true. They argue that the executions of William Hastings, Antony Woodville, Richard Grey and Thomas Vaughan and the threat of troops advancing from the North terrified the council – the same council which only two months earlier had successfully persuaded the queen to limit her son’s escort to 2000 men – and the Three Estates into accepting a fabricated precontract so Richard could satisfy his hitherto secret ambition of becoming king. As brother and uncle of kings, Lord Protector, Constable, Great Chamberlain and Lord High Admiral of England, Richard was indeed a powerful man, so could it be true?

As I discovered while researching this post, there’s a lot of confusion over what a precontract actually is, even among historians. In a nutshell, it’s a promise to marry which is binding if it is made either a) per verba de praesenti (“I marry you”) or b) per verba de futuro (“I will marry you”) and then followed by sexual intercourse. It’s not an engagement as we understand it today: a person who has previously (“pre”) made such a binding promise (“contract”) to someone can’t just go and marry someone else instead. Which is precisely what Edward IV was alleged to have done according to Titulus Regius:

“At the time of contract of the same feigned Marriage, and before and a long time after, the said King Edward was and stayed married and troth plight to one Dame Eleanor Butler, Daughter of the old Earl of Shrewsbury, with whom the same King Edward had made a precontract of matrimony, a long time before he made the said feigned Mariage with the said Elizabeth Grey, in manner and form above said.”

The precontract that deposed Edward V tends to be viewed as some kind of exotic technicality, but precontracts were common not only in medieval England, but well past the Reformation and affected all levels of society, even kings. A well documented example is Richard’s great-nephew Henry VIII, who tried to have three of his six marriages annulled on the basis of an alleged precontract. In all three cases the claim was highly dubious, but Henry was not only an anointed and firmly established – if not feared – king, but also Supreme Head on Earth of the Church of England. So how did he fare?

Surprisingly, he failed in two out of three cases. Let’s look at each of them in detail:

Anne Boleyn

Henry had changed his kingdom’s religion to be able to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and marry his second wife, Anne Boleyn, but in 1536 their marriage was on the rocks and Henry was looking for pastures new. One of the tools he tried to use to get rid of Anne was her former relationship with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland.

In the 1520s, when Anne was lady-in-waiting to Catherine of Aragon, a romance had developed between her and Percy and they had become secretly “engaged”, presumbably by making a de futuro marriage vow. Henry, who had his eye on Anne for himself, asked his then Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey, to intervene and “after much debate and consultation about lord Percy’s case it was finally decided that his engagement to Anne Boleyn should be dissolved and that he should instead marry one of the Earl of Shrewsbury’s daughters, Lady Mary Talbot, which he later did.”

The fact that the engagement had been dissolved at his own insistence didn’t stop Henry from claiming now, nine years later, that it was in fact a legally binding contract and therefore made his marriage to Anne invalid. His new Chancellor, Thomas Cromwell, tried to persuade Percy to support this version of events, but he refused to be bullied. On 13 May 1536 he wrote to Cromwell:

“I perceive by Raynold Carnaby that there is supposed a pre-contract between the Queen and me; whereupon I was not only heretofore examined upon my oath before the archbishops of Canterbury and York, but also received the blessed sacrament upon the same before the duke of Norfolk and other the King’s highness’ council learned in the spiritual law, assuring you, Mr. Secretary, by the said oath and blessed body, which afore I received and hereafter intend to receive, that the same may be to my damnation if ever there were any contract or promise of marriage between her and me.”

There’s little reason to doubt his sincerity. His marriage to Mary Talbot was very unhappy and in 1532 Mary had tried to obtain an annulment by claiming Percy had blurted out during an argument that they weren’t really married as he had been precontracted to Anne. However, as he stated in his letter to Cromwell, the matter was investigated and he swore on the Blessed Sacrament in front of the duke of Norfolk, the archbishops of Canterbury and York and Henry’s canon lawyers that it wasn’t true. He should have jumped at the opportunity to regain his freedom, but de futuro marriage vows only became binding if followed by sexual intercourse, so if he hadn’t slept with Anne then there was no binding contract.

Faced with Percy’s refusal, the king had to find another reason why his marriage to Anne was invalid. In the end it was declared null and void due to unspecified impediments supposedly confessed by Anne herself, but if she had hoped that this would save her life it wasn’t to be. She was accused of adultery with a number of men, including her own brother, and of planning to replace Henry with one of her lovers, which was treason. All but one of the accused, a musician who had been pressured into confessing, pleaded not guilty, but to no avail. On 15 May Anne was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to death. How she could have committed adultery if her marriage to the king was invalid was not explained. Percy, who sat on the jury that convicted her, fainted and had to be carried out. He died eight months later of natural causes. On 17 May the queen’s supposed lovers were executed, followed two days later by Anne herself, her sentence having been commuted from burning to beheading. Incredibly, Henry had been able to make the unlikely incest charge stick – the spectators at George Boleyn’s trial were betting ten to one that he would be acquitted – but not the claim of the precontract.

Anne of Cleves

Henry’s marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was a political match and not a happy one. They were married in January 1540 and by June Henry was looking for a way out, complaining that he was unable to have sex with her because she was ugly, that she wasn’t a virgin and even that she smelled bad. Sir John Wallop, the English ambassador in France, was therefore instructed to speak to the Cardinal of Lorraine about Anne’s former marriage negotiations with his brother, duke Francis of Lorraine.

Henry knew that many years ago Anne and Francis had been contracted to marry; in fact, he had questioned this after meeting her for the first time in an attempt to call off the wedding, but her brother’s ambassadors had dismissed his concerns. They declared that they had not only read the agreement, but also been present when the ambassador of the Duke of Gueldres, who had arranged the match, declared it null and void, and promised to provide copies of both the agreement and its dissolution. However, all they had been able to produce was a notarised statement that they had investigated the Cleves archives and found a report which stated that the negotiations “were not going to take their course”. Crucially, they had been unable to confirm whether the marriage contract was per verba de praesenti or de futuro and Henry now used this to his advantage.

On 6 July Anne was asked to agree for a church court to investigate her marriage, which she did. The following day a convocation presided over by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer began to consider the evidence and after two days of “mature deliberation” found the marriage “null by reason of a precontract between lady Anne and the marquis of Lorraine, that it was unwillingly entered into and never consummated, and that the King is at liberty to marry another woman, and likewise the lady Anne free to marry.” Specifically, it was argued that Anne’s marriage contract with Francis had likely been per verba de praesenti and therefore binding even without consummation and that, far from not being able to get it up, Henry had deliberately abstained from sleeping with Anne while awaiting clarification of the matter since, if the precontract turned out to be valid, it would have made their children bastards.

On 12 July Parliament announced Anne’s agreement to the annulment of her marriage to Henry, including her confirmation “that she remaineth not carnally known to the King’s Highness’s body”. Henry showed his gratitude by deciding “to endow you with £4,000 of yearly revenue. We have appointed you two houses, that at Richemont where you now lie, and the other at Blechinglegh, not far from London, that you may be near us and, as you desire, able to repair to our Court to see us, as we shall repair to you. When Parliament ends, we shall, in passing, see and speak with you, and you shall more largely see what a friend you and your friends have of us.” In return Anne sent him the ring she had received for their “pretensed marriage”, asking for it to be broken into pieces. It was a good deal: although she endured public humiliation and had to give up her title as queen, her cooperation with Henry’s wishes not only saved her life, but made her one of the wealthiest women in England.

Catherine Howard

Only 19 days after his marriage to Anne of Cleves was annulled, Henry married his fifth wife, Catherine Howard. Like her cousin Anne Boleyn, she was a niece of Thomas Howard, 3rd duke of Norfolk, and her fall from grace was just as spectacular. On 2nd November 1541 Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury, passed a letter to Henry which alleged that while growing up in the household of her step-grandmother, the dowager duchess of Norfolk, Catherine had affairs with Henry Manox, her music teacher, and Francis Dereham, a servant of the Howard family and now the queen’s secretary. The claims were made by a chambermaid who had shared a dormitory with her. Stunned, Henry ordered an investigation.

The chambermaid and Manox were questioned and Manox admitted that he “had commonly used to feel the secrets and other parts of the Queen’s body”, but denied sleeping with her, unlike Dereham who “used to haunt her chamber rightly and banquet there until 2 or 3 a.m.” Dereham and a number of Howard servants were arrested and sent to the Tower. Dereham confessed under torture that he “had known her carnally many times, both in his doublet and hose between the sheets and in naked bed”, but insisted that this had ended before her marriage to the king and that Thomas Culpeper, a gentleman of the Privy Chamber, had “succeeded him in the Queen’s affections”. Culpeper was arrested, tortured and confessed that “he intended and meant to do ill with the Queen and that in like wise the Queen so minded to do with him.”

On 8 November, Catherine herself was interrogated and made a written confession, in which she admitted to sexual relations with Dereham, but denied that they were contracted to be married:

“Examined whether I called him Husband, and he me Wife.— I do Answer, that there was Communication in the House that we Two should Marry together; and some of his Enemies had Envy thereat, wherefore he desired me to give him Leave to call me Wife, and that I would call him Husband. And I said I was content. And so after that, commonly he called me VVife, and many times I called him Husband. And he used many Times to Kiss me, and so he did to many other commonly in the House… As for Carnall Knowledge, I confess as I did before, that diverse Times he hath lyen with me, sometimes in his Doublet and Hose, and Two or Thre Times naked: But not so naked that he bad nothing upon him, for he had al wayes at the least his Doublet, and as I do think, his Hose also, but I mean naked when his Hose were putt down.”

In a letter to Henry she implied that Dereham had forced himself on her:

“Also Frauncez Derame by many persuasions procured me to his vicious purpose and obteyned first to lye uppon my bedde with his doblett and hose and after within the bedde and fynally he lay with me nakyd and used me in suche sorte as a man doith his wyfe many and sondry tymez but howe often I knowe not and our, company ended almost a yere before the Kynges majestye was maried to my lady Anne of Cleve and contynued not past oon quarter of a yere or litle above. Nowe the holl trouythe beyng declared unto your majestye I most humble beseche the same to considre the subtyll persuasions of young men and the ignorans and fraylnez of young women.”

Catherine clearly hadn’t learnt from the experiences of her predecessors, Anne Boleyn and Anne of Cleves. Admitting to a precontract with Dereham might have saved her life since, having been consummated, it would have invalidated her marriage to the king; denying it meant that her dalliance with Culpeper came dangerously close to treason. Henry’s advisors on the other hand were only too aware and interrogated the dowager duchess about a possible precontract between Dereham and her step-granddaughter.

Denying the precontract sealed Catherine’s fate. Henry now sought to establish adultery, which again proved easier than establishing a precontract. She admitted to secret meetings with Culpeper, calling him her “little sweet fool” and giving him presents, but both denied a sexual relationship. Nevertheless, on 1 December Dereham and Culpeper were convicted of treason and on 10 December Culpeper was beheaded and Dereham hanged, drawn and quartered. Their heads were put on spikes and displayed on London Bridge, where they remained until 1546.

On 21 January an Act of Attainder was passed against Catherine, which found her guilty of wanting to “return to her old abominable life” with Dereham and to “bring her vicious and abominable purpose to pass with Thos. Culpeper.” Since a mere intention to commit adultery wasn’t actually treason, it also declared “that an unchaste woman marrying the King shall be guilty of high treason” and on 13 February Catherine was executed. The same Act found the elderly dowager duchess, her eldest son William, his wife, two of her daughters and several of their servants, who had all spent Christmas in the Tower, guilty of concealing this treason. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and their property was confiscated.

Richard vs Henry

As the above examples show, even a king and head of the church couldn’t simply declare that a precontract existed; he had to prove it and there was no guarantee that he would succeed. Henry’s position was well-established – Anne Boleyn’s trial took place in the 27th year of his reign, that of Catherine Howard in the 32nd – and he had all the tools of his office(s) at his disposal to assemble evidence and intimidate witnesses, including imprisonment and torture, but he only succeeded in one case – Anne of Cleves – and only because the lady played along. Canon law hadn’t changed since the Middle Ages, so let’s compare Henry’s experience to Richard’s claim of a precontract between Edward IV and Eleanor Talbot.

While Richard had been confirmed as Lord Protector by the council and was working in co-operation with its members, he was in a considerably weaker position than Henry. He wasn’t an anointed king, merely de-facto regent, had only recently arrived in London and only had 200–300 retainers at his disposal (500–600 including Buckingham’s men). Unlike Anne of Cleves, neither Stillington nor Lady Eleanor’s family appear to have been rewarded for supporting the precontract claim. There’s also no indication that they were intimidated, imprisoned or tortured to make them support it, like the relatives and supposed lovers of Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard.

The Crowland Chronicle, written with hindsight in 1486, speaks of “armed men, in fearful and unheard-of numbers, from the north, Wales, and all other parts” marching on London in response to Richard’s letters, but Simon Stallworth, in his letter to Sir William Stonor dated 21 June 1483, doesn’t sound fearful or suspicious. On the contrary, he assumes they’re a peace keeping force:

“Yt is thoughte ther shalbe 20 thousand of my Lorde Protectour and my lorde of Bukyngham menne in London this weike to what intent I knowe note but to kep the peas.”

As it turned out, the 4000 men who answered Richard’s call didn’t arrive until his coronation and were sent home without seeing any action. Clearly he expected trouble, either due to a plot against his life, as he claimed in his letters, or the revelation of the precontract or both, but in the end reinforcements weren’t needed. The executions of Hastings, Rivers, Grey and Vaughan may have contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty, but a contemporary fragment in the Cely papers suggests that, far from seeing Richard as the culprit, people were worried about his safety:

“… there is great rumour in the realm, the Scots have done great [harm] in England, the Chamberlain is deceased in trouble, the Chancellor is desperate and not content, the Bishop of Ely is dead, if the King, God save his life, were deceased, the Duke of Gloucester were in any peril, if my Lord Prince, who God defend, were troubled, if my lord of Northumberland were dead or greatly troubled, if my Lord Howard were slain.”

The logical conclusion therefore has to be that the precontract that deposed Edward V was accepted without threats or bribery because the evidence itself – at the very least Stillington’s testimony – was seen as convincing.

Richard of Gloucester, Protector and Constable of England or Henry VIII, King and Supreme Head of the Church of England: who do you think was more powerful?

Related Posts:

“Debunking the Myths – Richard the Secret Usurper”

“The Trial That Should Have Happened in 1483”

Sources And Further Reading:

H A Kelly: “THE MATRIMONIAL TRIALS OF HENRY VIII”, Wipf and Stock; Reprint edition (2004)


Claire Ridgway: “Henry Percy Won’t Play Ball”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilee Hanson: “The relationship between Henry Percy & Anne Boleyn”, English History

Claire Ridgway: “The End of Henry VIII’s Marriage to Anne of Cleves”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilee Hanson: “Anne of Cleves: Facts, Biography, Information & Portraits”, English History

Marilee Hanson: “Catherine Howard: Facts, Biography, Portraits & Information”, English History

Claire Ridgway: “The Fall of Catherine Howard”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Claire Ridgeway: “The Bill of Attainder against Catherine Howard and Lady Rochford”, The Anne Boleyn Files

Marilyn Roberts: “Terror for the Howards at Christmas”, The Anne Boleyn Files