Debunking the Myths – Richard the Secret Usurper

Ripon Cathedral misericord

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

Today’s blog focuses on the long-standing myth and rumor that, upon Edward IV’s sudden and unexpected death on the 9th of April, 1483, Richard secretly conspired to usurp the throne from his nephew, the 12-year old Edward V. The rumor finds dramatic presentation in Shakespeare’s play, but some contemporary chroniclers say it had been in circulation from the very beginning of the boy’s 11-week reign.

Dominic Mancini, an Italian cleric and diplomat who was sent to London to report intelligence back to the French king Louis XI, wrote in 1483 that the fear of usurpation found root even before Richard left his castle in Yorkshire to accompany the young king to London for his coronation. Mancini writes of a widespread belief that the appointment of a Lord Protector for the boy inevitably placed the uncle in a position to take the crown because “it had been found that no regent ever laid down his office, save reluctantly, and from armed compulsion, whence civil wars had often arisen.” “Moreover, if the entire government were committed to one man he might easily usurp the sovereignty.” “Having entered the city the first thing he [Richard] saw to was to have himself proclaimed, by authority of the council and all the lords, protector or regent of the king and realm. Then he set his thoughts on removing, or at least undermining, everything that might stand in the way of his mastering the throne.”

Some scholars even suggest Edward IV did not intend a protectorate at all, saying that it was his intention for his young son to be immediately anointed in a coronation ceremony, and henceforth rule on his own behalf with the assistance of a royal council. Professor Rosemary Horrox takes this viewpoint by saying that Richard “made himself protector” in her introduction to the Parliamentary Rolls of 1484, and in her book RICHARD III: A STUDY OF SERVICE, where she writes that the man who authored the Crowland Chronicle, a man who was likely a member of Edward IV’s inner circle and possibly on the royal council, voiced no objection to this hasty coronation and the bypassing of Richard having a dominant role in the reign of Edward V.

Both Mancini and the Crowland chronicler were writing in retrospect, following Richard’s accession to the throne on June 26, 1483, after the news broke that the children of Edward IV and Queen Elizabeth were illegitimate by their parents’ bigamous and invalid marriage. Thus, it is no surprise that their narratives are shaped by this hindsight; inevitably they both make suppositions about Richard’s true intentions in order to view the events of May-June, 1483 within some logical framework. It is a commonplace difficulty when examining any account of historical events, whether written by a diplomat, a cleric, or a merchant in his personal correspondence.

This is why physical evidence from the period can be much more enlightening than letters, missives or chronicles written by contemporaries. Perhaps no more dramatic proof of this can be found than in the discovery of Richard III’s skeletal remains, the information they’ve provided and the myths they have already dispelled. Examination of those remains has already proven that Richard did not suffer from a “hunchback” or a withered arm or a horribly disfiguring physical impairment.

In this vein, I would like to discuss another piece of physical evidence that lends silent testimony to Richard’s intentions in May and June, 1483. This evidence, I believe, confirms that Richard was more widely accepted as Lord Protector than previously reported and there was no premeditation to remove Edward V.

A Most Curious Coin

In preparing my talk on the symbolism of Richard’s boar badge for the Richard III Foundation in October, 2015, I ran across a very surprising discovery: a coin that was minted and distributed in 1483 – also known as the “Year of Three Kings: Edward IV, Edward V and Richard III”. It was arrestingly beautiful and, given that it was struck at the Tower Mint in London during one of the most controversial periods of English history, I felt compelled to research it further.

Boar coin

Gold Angel Coin

This is the front or “obverse” side of the coin, a monetary unit established by the first Yorkist king, Edward IV, and called the Angel. With the exception of Edward IV’s brief and failed experiment with a “Rose-Noble” or “Ryal” coin, the Angel was the most valuable of all coins (80p), being made of gold, and was intended to replace the gold Noble coins which had been circulated in England since the reign of Edward III. The image on the obverse side of Angel coins depicts the Archangel Saint Michael slaying a dragon. Around the edge of the coin are words in abbreviated Latin announcing the name of the ruling monarch and his titles – king of England, France and Lord of Ireland. In the above image, those words indicate that the monarch’s name is Edward.

Taking a closer look at the coin, I noticed right away that there was a boar’s head between the saint’s halo and the first letter of Edward’s name.  I wanted to know why it was there and whether it had any symbolic meaning that could tell us something about the politics of the day. In other words, why would the well-known device of Richard as Duke of Gloucester and later King Richard III, appear on a coin during his brother’s or his nephew’s reigns?

What I discovered is that Edward IV’s early reign saw not only the inventing of the Angel as a new currency, but the development of a new system of “initial marks” or “privy marks” or “mint marks” on coinage. Prior to 1461, English coins routinely had mint marks on them to signal where they were struck (there were multiple mints in England, including York, Canterbury and London), to give some information about their age, and which “run” of coin stamping they were produced in. The minting of coins in the medieval period was a combination of artistic skill, basic manufacturing and quality control. Bullion or plate would be brought into the mint, fashioned into blanks and then stamped with coin dies to produce officially sanctioned images. The dies were created by skilled craftsmen with the approval and under the careful eye of the Mint Master.

Every three months, the English Exchequer would conduct something known as the “Trial of the Pyx” – random coins from various mint runs would be carefully examined and weighed against official exemplar coins kept in the Pyx Box. Coins that were found unequal in weight to the Pyx exemplar, or with imperfections in their hammered images, told the examiners that there was a problem with a particular run of coins coming out of the mint. Sometimes, it was a corrupt moneyer who provided bullion or plate that did not contain the right amount of silver or gold in the alloy, thus cheating the Crown by skimming off small amounts of precious metal, a practice that often brought with it a the penalty of death. If this was the case, the examiners at the Pyx Trial could then go back and “recall” the coins bearing similar mint marks from the production batches. And possibly identify the cheater who supplied the bullion.

The secret language of “mint marks” was usually in the form of crosses (saltires), loops, or pellets. During Edward IV’s reign, a new system was developed: the addition of mint marks that were uniquely heraldic. This practice was truly innovative and continued for over two hundred years thereafter, until the practice of hammering coins was discontinued. Consistent with this new Yorkist practice, coins during the reign of Edward IV, especially those of great value like Angels, would contain mint-mark symbols of significance to his royal house. The Rose and the Sun in Splendor were particular favorites, both being heraldic badges of Edward IV.

When changing the mint mark, an artisan would sometimes just recarve the new image over the previous one. It saved time and money to do so, as opposed to creating an entirely new coin die. Even more confusingly, I discovered that English kings who newly came to their thrones would sometimes just use their predecessor’s coin dies: the artisans at the mint would pick up the prior dies, make whatever changes were necessary (if any) and continue stamping out new money until the new king’s administration developed a design for his own coinage.

So that’s a very basic summary of minting coins in the 15th century. But here’s the rub: Edward IV never used the boar’s head on any of his coinage, as a heraldic mint mark or otherwise in the symbolic imagery of his reign. I had to ask myself what I was looking at. Was it a coin from Edward IV’s, Edward V’s or even the early days of Richard III’s reign? The balance of evidence suggests it was from that most precarious of periods in the Plantagenet dynasty: the few short weeks when Edward V was king and his uncle Richard was recognized as Lord Protector.

A Gold Angel from the Lord Protectorate Period: May-June 1483

In October of 1955, two workmen reported that they had dug up 83 gold and 22 silver coins at the corner of the Zandstraat in Herentals, a province of Antwerp, Belgium. “They had been engaged in foundation work for a new building to be erected on the site of an ancient house and had found the coins about 5 feet below street level.” It turns out the workmen falsely reported their discovery; what they’d actually found was an ancient broken vase that contained a hoard of 225 gold and 22 silver coins that was probably hidden by someone during the Spanish-Dutch wars in the late 16th century. When I read the article concerning this discovery in the British Numismatic Journal, written by preeminent coin expert Herbert Schneider in 1955, my eyes immediately jumped to a sentence describing the origin of the coins, coming from “no less than 36 different countries, provinces, seigneuries, or towns, including 20 English gold coins, among them a George Noble of Henry VIII and an Angel of Edward V.”

Schneider proceeded to catalogue and describe each of the English coins:

“Apart from the obvious rarity of a rather crinkled and somewhat battered George Noble which has normal features and legends, only an Angel of Edward V (Pl. XXV, 19), is of outstanding importance and interest. This is the fifth known specimen and was struck from the same pair of dies as the British Museum coin, illustrated in Brooke’s English Coins, Pl. xxxv. 2, which had hitherto been on a plane of its own, for the other three Angels of Edward V are all from a different altered obverse die of Edward IV combined with a different reverse die of Blunt + Whitton’s Type XXII. On Whitton’s list we find their obverse under No. 7, and the reverse is Blunt + Whitton Type XXII, reverse of No. 6, whereas the British Museum and the Herentals specimens were struck from the dies listed by Whitton under No. 4, the reverse of which tallies with Blunt + Whitton Type XXII, reverse of No. 7.”

Although I am not a numismatist by any stretch of the imagination, this description told me that there were, indeed, gold Angels produced during the short reign of Edward V. More surprisingly is how Schneider went on to describe the appearance of the Edward V Angel found in Herentels, Belgium:

Edward V (1483)

ANGEL. Obv[erse]. Initial mark Boar’s Head (over Sun + Rose). Read DI FRANC*/*. Saltire stops.

Rev[erse]. Initial mark Sun+Rose. Reads /DRVCEM REDEMP* otherwise no stops. Whitton No. 4. (Cf. Brooke’s English Coins, Pl. xxxv, 2.)

So now I had an expert saying that during the reign of Edward V, gold coins such as Angels were minted with the boar’s head mark on them.

Reading further, I found an article from 1949 in the British Numismatic Journal, written by F. O. Arnold, which addressed the controversy over Angel coins bearing the boar’s head mark.   The controversy mainly arose because Edward V’s reign was only 11 weeks long – not long enough in some numismatists’ minds to produce coinage. They argued that such coins were produced during the end of Edward IV’s reign. However, Dr. Arnold disagreed and said the Tower Mint records showed in Edward V’s reign “some 49 lb. in gold coins and 434 lb. in silver coins were in fact minted, and Hawkins himself and most other numismatists subsequently agreed that coins bearing the name of Edward and a boar’s head upon them were definitely assignable to the reign of Edward V.”

There are hundreds, if not thousands, of coins that still exist today that are known to come from the reign of Edward IV. None of them contain a boar’s head.   This fact, along with the opinions of Schneider and Arnold and the British Museum, suggest that the coin shown above was in fact minted during Edward V’s reign. At the very least, it shows that a coin die was created with the name of King Edward and a Boar’s Head on it. Can there be any explanation other than it was made between April 9 and June 26, 1483?

It turns out that some coin experts, and indeed one who gave a presentation at a meeting of the British Numismatic Society in the mid-1980s, have the opinion that the gold Angel with a boar’s head and bearing the name of Edward was actually made during the early months of Richard III’s reign. They argue that the mint men simply picked up a die from the prior Edward V’s coinage, and stamped a boar’s head on top of what had been there originally. But that theory and its presentation were never published in the Society’s journal. And, given the way Richard III came to the crown – following the deposition of Edward V – it would seem illogical and even contrary to common sense for Richard III’s new coins to bear the name of a king who was just declared a bastard, although it is always possible that some errant coins were produced. If it was a matter of convenience to be re-using old dies and carving a boar’s head over a previous mint mark, then why didn’t the goldsmith also carve over the name Edward?  Coins produced during Richard III’s reign always abbreviated his name as “Ricard” so all it took was etching over three letters – not a very onerous task.

Finally, I located an article from 1934 in the British Numismatic Journal written by Christopher Blunt that addressed more broadly the “Coinage of Edward V”. There, he catalogues not only an Angel coin from the Protectorate period, but also a Groat, Half-Groat, and Penny – all bearing the boar’s head with the name Edward on the obverse.   So it appears that the Angel coin I was looking at wasn’t just a “one off” event. Coinage during the short reign of Edward V indisputably bore (forgive the pun) boar’s head mint marks.

What does this all mean? Can we deduce any political messages from the imagery contained on the Edward V coins? I think we can.

Political Symbolism of the Edward V Gold Angel

It would be stating the obvious that images and symbols were widely used for political propaganda in the 15th century. We need look no further than the Edward IV Roll at the Free Library of Philadelphia to observe how the Yorkists used the power of images to maximize political messaging. Examination of the multiple images in the Edward IV Roll is notable for its utter lack of a boar, or boar’s head, as a heraldic or family device. It belonged, uniquely, to Richard when he became Duke of Gloucester and later King.

Coins, like genealogical rolls, promoted political messages. The coins bearing the name of Edward V and a boar’s head mint mark announce very strongly that Richard was recognized to be the singular powerful lord supporting his reign. Not only was he personally subsidizing it by supplying it with his own money and administrative talents, but he was the undoubted “power behind the power” in maintaining his nephew’s realm. There is no dispute that in the period from May 9 to mid-June, the Crown’s administrative machinery was kept in smooth working order without any evidence of Richard trying to “undermine” Edward V’s rule.

Rosemary Horrox demonstrates in her book RICHARD III: A STUDY OF SERVICE that there is no evidence showing panicked minds or general insecurity between Richard’s assumption as Lord Protector and events leading up the first sermons preached about Edward IV’s precontracted marriage to Eleanor Talbot. In fact, she says, the council operated in apparent harmony and without controversy; Richard made every attempt to maintain continuity with the prior regime, without promoting his own partisans into the mix. Sir John Wood, formerly the Speaker of the Commons in Edward IV’s 1483 Parliament, was made Lord Treasurer of the Exchequer to replace the deceased Earl of Essex on the 16th of May. William, Lord Hastings, was re-ordained in his position as Master of the Tower Mint on the 20th of May. Coinage struck at the Tower Mint in May and June was made under the mandate of the Lord Treasurer, John Wood, showing that perhaps Hastings was either distracted with other issues or perhaps falling out of favor. In any case, Horrox comments that at this time, “most Englishmen seem to have acknowledged” Richard’s authority, as he was able to command former men from Edward IV’s household in dicey situations where orders issuing from a suspected usurper would have otherwise been met with a decided lack of enthusiasm.  There was no indication of the latter.

That Richard was widely accepted as Lord Protector and as the “power behind the power” of Edward V’s nascent regime is even more strongly supported by the speech prepared by John Russell, bishop of Lincoln and the new Chancellor under Edward V. This speech was prepared in anticipation of the Parliament scheduled for the 25th of June, and was probably written somewhere between the 13th of May and the 5th  or 10th of June. As Professor Charles Ross has commented in his biography RICHARD III, this speech carries with it not only the personal viewpoint of Russell, but “may be regarded as official government policy”. Russell’s speech castigates the Queen’s relatives as being unreliable support to the new regime, and casts Richard as Lepidus, twice consul of Rome, who was elected by the Roman senate to have guardianship of the boy Ptolemy, king of Egypt and to not only provide for his education and physical well-being but also to address himself to the administration of all great things concerning his realm. As Annette Carson explains in her treatise, RICHARD AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE (2015), this was a proposition that gave even more power to Richard as guardian of Edward V and Protector of the Realm.  Certainly, there is no evidence here of any fear that he was grasping to usurp his nephew’s crown.

Coins from the reign of Edward V thus provide us a glimpse into a stable albeit brief period, where Richard’s authority as Lord Protector was not controversial and where the new government seemed poised to solidify and even enlarge his guardianship. The disclosure of Edward V’s bastardy arose outside the inner workings of Richard’s protectorate administration, and must have been just as surprising and shocking to him as to the public.

(By the way:  if you’re interested in acquiring an Edward V Angel coin such as the one described above, be prepared to pay a hefty price.  Auction estimates range in the 25,000 GBP range for one in good condition. And that was in 2013.)