Book Review – Richard, Duke of York; King by Right by Matthew Lewis

By Nathen Amin

In recent times there have been biographies aplenty in the Wars of the Roses, a trend that shows no signs of abating. Henry VII, Jasper Tudor, Edward IV and Richard III have received plenty of attention from historians in the last few years, to add to the Social Media groups and blogs dedicated to such luminaries of the fifteenth century.

Oddly, such a biography or study had yet to be written about the man who, in the eyes of many, initiated the brutal internecine conflict, Richard, Duke of York. It is true that he features as a major character either in works about others or general Wars of the Roses tomes, but for such an important figure however, a dedicated biography has been long overdue. Thankfully this is something Matthew Lewis has finally supplied.

Apart from being a highly influential fifteenth century figure deserving of modern analysis, Lewis outlines his motivation for the work to be an attempt to push aside the veils of myth and legend that surround the duke of York and to challenge the image of Richard as a man whose insatiable ambition dragged his nation into a civil war. Did Richard, after all, have a ‘burning ambition and unquenchable desire for the throne’ or was he merely acting in the general interest of the kingdom?

Lewis’ book begins with Edmund of Langley, a son of Edward III and the first duke of York; the narrative helps outline the importance of pedigree to Richard of York’s story, quickly zipping through the reigns of Richard II, Henry IV and Henry V until we come to Richard’s early life. It is these early years that is often missing from other accounts in which Richard plays a part; most works feature Richard in his later life as a divisive magnate connected to the outbreak of the Wars of the Roses, so it is refreshing to read his early years where Lewis reveals details about where he was based and the development of early connections.

51IZwV6HEuL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_A typical insight into this often unexplored period of his life Lewis’ inclusion of a letter written by King Henry VI to a 16 year old Richard in 1428. The king addresses his ‘dear and beloved cousin’ and requests his presence to join the king’s household. ‘Do not delay in any manner, but know that your arrival we shall provide for you so well in household for your residence that you will be very pleased and content with this’. This is where Lewis’ book has worth – regular readers of the genre will be aware of the caricature of Richard towards the end of his life, but here we are provided evidence of his early life, on the cusp of adulthood.

Elsewhere, I noted that Lewis openly acknowledges the use of propaganda by the House of York, a dark art which was certainly used before the Tudors acceded the throne. It has become clichéd in recent years to castigate the Tudor Dynasty for their use of spin tactics in establishing their supremacy, but with Lewis recognising and revealing Yorkist use of similar methods, it only serves to show this is not a book built on bias to its subject, albeit one primarily from the duke’s point of view.

An example of this can be seen how the author doesn’t dodge the controversial question of the paternity of Edward IV, Richard’s son. Accusations by anti-Yorkists have long been levelled that Edward was not the son of Richard, but rather of an English archer. This supposition is based on the fact that Richard was possibly not with his wife at time of conception. Rather than rejecting this as a fanciful story designed to ruin the duke’s reputation, Lewis pays notice to the rumours rather than dismissing it out of hand, and whilst ultimately concluding that this controversy cannot be answered either way in the absence of DNA testing, it’s a logical and rational answer to a topic often treated emotionally. His later assertion that Richard wouldn’t have bothered seeking a prestigious match for a son he thought was not his, as well as the fact the duke always acknowledged his son, particularly resonate as a collected summary of the controversy.

The book is easy to read, with an engaging narrative merging gently with original sourced material in the form of chronicles and patent rolls. Richard, Duke of York, is a figure who ‘towers over late medieval history in England’ and this is a handy and much-needed biography of his life and times. The fact that I spent every work lunchtime over the last two weeks reading the book, and not feeling that I had wasted that time, speaks volumes for the writing style and content. A good addition to Wars of the Roses genre that is even-handed if sympathetic, detailed if concise and enjoyable to read.

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Matthew Lewis is the author of two histories and two historical fiction novels about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses. The medieval period is a particular passion of his, which he hopes to spread through his blog. He is dedicated to teaching and discussing this period, operating two history podcasts and providing bite-sized facts to his Twitter and Facebook following. Wars of the Roses, the Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy, Medieval Britain in 100 Facts and Richard, Duke of York; King by Right are all available on Amberley Publishing.

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Unmasking the Villain

By Samantha Wilcoxson

It has become standard practice for history enthusiasts to be an unquestioning supporter of either Henry VII or Richard III, naming the other as the worst villain of their age. Is this a fair assessment? The fact that we cannot agree on which man is the evil one should be enough to make one wonder if they weren’t both something between demon and angel.

Historical fiction has been particularly unkind to Henry Tudor. He is expected by readers to be cold, calculating, and a little too much of a mama’s boy. One bestselling author even paints him as a rapist, while others simply have him treat his wife, Elizabeth of York, with contempt and disdain. Primary records demonstrate that this picture of Henry is almost completely false.

In Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England, Thomas Penn establishes that Henry was an intelligent ruler who unified England after decades of bloodshed in the Wars of the Roses. He was also devout, as is evinced by the fact that his few money-spending occasions were those that took place within the church and before God: coronations, weddings, and funerals. Known as a penny-pincher, Henry was willing to outlay cash when he felt it was worth it, but he also worked to correct the state of the royal coffers that he had taken over.

Even before his surprising success, Henry Tudor had looked to unite the kingdom he hoped to rule. On Christmas 1483, he pledged to marry the oldest daughter of the late king, Edward IV. Elizabeth was undoubtedly a prize, but one can see the thought for the future in Henry making this vow. It is also worth noting that the Plantagenet princess married him and supported Henry in his goals for improving and unifying England.

Henry was described by contemporaries as ‘spare’ with ‘high cheek bones’ and ‘dark hair faintly greying around the temples.’ Although they called him ‘grave,’ those presented to the first Tudor king also referred to him as ‘gracious’ and a ‘wonderful presence.’ This does not sound like the awful person we have been trained to believe Henry Tudor was.

However, Henry was also not the savior of England. In a cruel move as soon as his predecessor was dead, Henry had his reign dated beginning August 21, 1485. This was the day before his troops had killed Richard III in battle. Every man who had fought for their anointed king could then be named a traitor.

Henry’s reputation is also soiled by his execution of Edward of Warwick to appease Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain during negotiations for the marriage between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon. Edward, nephew of Edward IV and Richard III, was almost certainly innocent of any charges against him and had spent the entirety of Henry’s reign within Tower walls based on no charges whatsoever.

What we can say of Henry is that he left England a better place than he had found it. Financial security, internal peace, and a plan for the succession are more than Edward IV and Richard III had managed. Despite his faults, Henry VII had a positive impact on the land he had taken by conquest.

This brings us to Richard III. Unlike Henry Tudor, Richard brings different visions to the minds of those who study his history. On one side is the Shakespearean character, almost ridiculous in his abundance of evil that leaves him twisted in spirit and physical form. Opposing this, we have the Richard of more recent authors’ creation that make him a romantic leading man, caught up in circumstances that were beyond him and underestimating the ambitions of others. What is difficult with Richard III is taking middle ground, where the truth likely lies.

We will probably never know the complete truth about when Richard decided to take his nephew’s throne or whether or not he had his brother’s children murdered. Unsolved mysteries do not constitute evidence, so let us consider what we do know. Documentation of Richard’s life and character takes a unique form. Centuries after the last change in dynasty, contemporary historians had to determine what was truth and what should be written to please the new Tudor king. Contemporary accounts vary almost as much as modern opinions.

Before Richard’s death, historian John Rous described him as, ‘a mighty prince’ known for ‘commendably punishing offenders of the laws’ and ‘cherishing those that were virtuous.’ Once Henry Tudor was in power, Rous painted a different picture of Richard, more suited to Tudor taste. Polydore Virgil, who believed that Richard had killed his nephews, nonetheless admitted, ‘he had a sharp wit’ and ‘his courage also high and fierce.’

Richard III attempted to rule in a more prudent way than his brother had. Edward IV was charismatic and an unbeatable soldier. He had also been impetuous and short-sighted, leading to division over his choice of wife and handling of foreign relations. Richard was an upright, serious presence next to his boisterous brother. Dependable enough to carry out a wide variety of duties as Duke of Gloucester, Constable of England, and an impressive list of other titles given to him by his brother, Richard proved himself reliable and loyal throughout Edward IV’s reign, but scandal and rebellion make it difficult to discern whether he could have ruled the kingdom as well as he had managed other responsibilities.

With a reign of just over two years, Richard gives us less evidence to judge him by than Henry Tudor does. He was pious and devout as his brother had been pleasure-seeking, supporting several religious houses, churches, and King’s College at Cambridge. For a man accused of many illegal acts, Richard’s actions show that he was ‘much concerned that justice should be done,’ according to biographer Charles Ross. Born and raised in a time of war, Richard was particularly driven to ensure peace and justice were available to all Englishmen, rich and poor. He had served as Constable of England under Edward IV and earned a reputation for fairness only challenged after Edward’s death.

Like Henry, Richard has marks against him. The executions of Anthony Woodville, Richard Grey, and William Hastings are often the first points brought up (after accusing Richard of ridding himself of his nephews). Was Richard acting legally as Constable of England and Protector of the Realm when he ordered these executions? Certainly. Was he acting prudently? The fact that we continue to discuss it today indicates that he was not. Even if one believes these acts were judicial murder, they are no different than Tudor’s actions against Edward of Warwick. In fact, I challenge any student of history to name a medieval monarch who did not execute at least one person on charges that would never stand up to modern standards. Each Plantagenet and Tudor ruler is certainly guilty of this. While this does not make Richard innocent, it fails to make him stand out as a villain.

Richard had managed an area of England that had been plagued by border wars for years. The ongoing battles with Scotland would continue even after Henry VII negotiated a treaty that made his own daughter the wife of Scotland’s King James IV. During this time, Richard was not accused of wrongdoing but was beloved in the north and especially in York. One wonders if it is true, as some biographers have suggested, that the responsibilities of kingship were simply too much for him and he was not given time to find his way. This characterization indicates that Richard was inept but not evil.

Dare I suggest that neither Henry VII nor Richard III was the devil incarnate, attempting to make England his domain on Earth? Both men made mistakes and purposely took actions that would be unacceptable for a 21st century ruler. They both attracted supporters and made positive changes in the lives of those under their authority. If we remove the lens of romanticism and the need to have a ‘bad guy’ to blame for occurrences in history, I believe we will find two men who believed they were doing what was right, boosted by personal ambition for gain and glory much like any other nobleman of their era.

Rather than joining Team Richard or Team Henry, we can gain much by learning about both of these dynamic kings and appreciating their history for what it is. This change of power ended a three century long dynasty and began one of the most well-known dynasties in English history. The fact that we are still talking about it 500 years later is proof in itself that there is more going on here than good versus evil.

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Samantha Wilcoxson is a writer with a passion for history. Her most recent novel, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York, is a Kindle best seller in the US and UK. For more information, visit her blog at SamanthaWilcoxson.blogspot.com.

Additional Reading:

The Wars of the Roses: The Key Players in the Struggle for Supremacy by Matthew Lewis

Winter King: Henry VII and the Dawn of Tudor England by Thomas Penn

Richard III by Charles Ross

The Last White Rose: The Secret Wars of the Tudors by Desmond Seward

The Wars of the Roses: The Fall of the Plantagenets and the Rise of the Tudors by Dan Jones

Merevale Abbey

By Nathen Amin

Merevale Abbey is situated in the heart of England and located just a few miles away from where the Battle of Bosworth Field was fought on a hot summer’s day in August 1485. It was recorded that Henry Tudor and part of his army encamped on the abbey grounds the night before the battle.

The small abbey was founded on the site in 1148 by Robert de Ferrers, 2nd Earl of Derby. The early history of the Cistercian abbey was uneventful and it appears to have been only played a moderate role in the locality as opposed to some of the larger, wealthier abbeys of the period. It seems that the abbey rarely houses more than ten monks. Nonetheless Edward I stayed at the abbey in August 1275 whilst Edward III was recorded as being at Merevale in March 1322.

Merevale Abbey Gatehouse
Merevale Abbey Gatehouse

In August 1485 the abbey played a significant part in English history when the army of Henry Tudor approached the gatehouse. Henry had landed in Wales after a fourteen year exile abroad and had come with the intention to usurp the English crown from Richard III, who in turn had taken the crown from his young nephew Edward V. Henry’s army had travelled down Watling Street from Shrewsbury and with a requirement for refreshment and recuperation targeted Merevale’s Cistercian abbey as the ideal resting spot.

It is possible that it was at Merevale that Henry Tudor fatefully met with his stepfather Thomas Stanley. The Stanleys intervention the following day on the side of Tudor rather than Richard III is often seen as the decisive moment of the battle. Was a plan hatched by the men whilst they were in the abbey grounds? A later observer remarked ‘it was a goodly sight to see the meeting of them’ whilst Tudor’s biographer Polydore Vergil would later write that Tudor and Stanley took each other by the hand ‘and yielding mutual salutation’ entered into ‘counsel in what sort to arraigne battle with King Richard’.

The Parish Church, formely part of the Abbey
The Parish Church, formely part of the Abbey

Later evidence hasbeen used to support the theory that Henry’s army stayed at Merevale Abbey. As king Henry issued a warrant reimbursing the abbey with 100 marks having ‘sustained great hurts, charges and losses, by occasion of the great repair and resort that our people coming towards our late field made, as well unto the house of Merevale aforesaid as in going over his ground, to the destruction of his corns and pastures’. Payments were also made to other settlements in the region, including £24 20s 4d to Atherstone, £20 to Fenny Drayton and £13 to Witherley amongst other townships.

Furthermore in September 1503 the king returned to Merevale whilst on progress and visited the abbey. He commemorated his great victory by sanctioning a new stained glass window depicting his favoured saint, Armel. The decision to use a saint that was very personal to him as opposed to a national symbol like George suggests Henry felt a deep connection with Merevale and wanted to convey his appreciation for the role the abbey played in his victory. The small figure of Armel can still be viewed in the South Aisle of the Gate Chapel, a rare depiction of this saint in England. Another place the saint can be viewed is in the Lady Chapel at Westminster Abbey where a statue of Armel is located close to the magnificent tomb of the king. On 30 October 1511 Henry Tudor’s son and successor Henry VIII paid a visit to the abbey with his wife Queen Katherine of Aragon.

Artistic Impression of Merevale Abbey
Artistic Impression of Merevale Abbey

Despite this close connection with the Tudor dynasty Merevale Abbey was nonetheless dissolved on 13 October 1538 on the orders of Henry VIII and gradually fell into ruin. The surrender of the house was signed by Abbot William Arnold who was compensated with a pension of £40. Sub-abbot John Ownsbe and four of the monks received £5 6s 8d with three other monks received £5 and one other monk receiving only 3s 4d. The monastery and the lands were put into the possession of the Lord Ferrers two days later.

Today the only remaining part of the Abbey still used for religious service is the former Gate Chapel, which is now utilised as the parish church. This church contains a sizable degree of stained glass of historical significance, including a Jesse window often considered to amongst the most important in Britain. The window has been dated to around 1330 and was presumably original positioned inside the abbey proper. It contains a tree linking ten kings and prophets. Elsewhere is the aforementioned stained glass window depicting St Armel, placed there by Henry Tudor after he had become king.

Abbey ruins (Part of the Abbey Farm B&B estate)
Abbey ruins (Part of the Abbey Farm B&B estate)

The remainder of the abbey ruins can be found on private land, namely grounds owned by the Abbey Farm Bed & Breakfast. The remains are thought to primarily be those connected to the north and south walls of the Refectory, including a full moulded doorway.

Abbey Farm
Abbey Farm