Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Constance of York - the early years

Some of you may be wondering what all this stuff about Richard II and his quarrels has to do with the House of York. Well, they were there, on Richard's side up until 1399 when all hell was to break loose. I'll write shortly about Edward of York Earl of Rutland and his exploits in the removal of Uncle Gloucester and the rest, but for the present I want to turn to his sister, Constance. As you may know, I found her interesting enough to write a novel about her, and it's time I said something. This post at least will contain no spoilers.

Constance was born before 1378, probably in the range 1374-76. The first mention of her is on 16th April 1378, when her father was granted the marriage of Edward, son and heir of Edward, late Lord Le Despenser, for her benefit. Edmund of Langley was doing his duty as a father here, providing for her future in what was practically the only way available. Young Edward Despenser must have died soon after this and his next (and only surviving) brother, Thomas, was substituted. Thomas and Constance were formally married before 7th November 1379 as John of Gaunt's Register records a gift to them of a silver-gilt cup and ewer on a stand, worth £22-0-4. (Getting on for the equivalent of nine grand today, and certainly better than a toast rack from Marks and Spencer.)

Thomas Despenser was barely 6 years old. He was descended from the famous (or is it infamous?) Hugh the Younger (his great-grandfather) and Eleanor de Clare, and was thus a (relatively remote) cousin of Constance, both being descended from King Edward I by different routes. He was (once he got hold of his lands) among the top dozen or so richest nobles in the kingdom, despite his relatively unimpressive title, Lord Despenser of Glamorgan and Morgannwg. (Which means, as those who know their Welsh will be aware, Lord of Glamorgan and Glamorgan.)

The Despenser family had spent much of the 14th century recovering from the disaster that Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella had inflicted upon them. Thomas's father, and his great uncle before him, had served in King Edward III's wars, and their service was much appreciated and rewarded.

Edward Despenser is little-known today, except as the 'kneeling knight' of Tewkesbury Abbey, but in his day his reputation was up there with the league leaders, and he was a founder-member of the Garter. They had land in many counties of England, with a nice concentration in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, but the jewel in their crown was undoubtedly Glamorgan, at this time (prior to the Glyndwr rising) at the peak of its profitability.

Thomas's mother, Elizabeth de Burghersh, was the daughter of another famous knight and the heiress to considerable lands in her own right. Edmund of Langley had undoubtedly done well for his girl, given that he would almost certainly have struggled to produce a dowry capable of buying such a match in the open market. What the Despensers thought about it we cannot know, but if they were in a positive frame of mind they may have thought that marriage of their head of family to a granddaughter of King Edward III pretty well completed the rehabilitation process, and banished the spectre of Hugh the Younger hanging from his 50 foot gallows.

In January 1384 Constance was granted 80 marks a year (round about £21K modern money) from the Despenser lands towards her maintenance. Elizabeth de Burghersh (not Edmund of Langley) had Thomas's wardship, but she had to pay a fee to the Crown out of this, and I believe this grant would have been deducted from that fee. It suggests that Constance was still living at home with her parents - or at least under their roof - but it's not definite proof, and it could equally be that the cash just dropped into Langley's pocket for his general expenses. (He received another sum from the Despenser revenues in his own right, so altogether it was a nice little earner, and probably helped keep him in greyhounds.)

The next event in Constance's life that we know about was in 1386 when she was appointed, in her own right, to the Order of the Garter. (As an aside, it's interesting that Richard II appointed more women to the Garter than all the other medieval sovereigns put together - and while we're at it we can mention that that nice fellow Henry VIII stopped the practice altogether.) Constance was certainly one of the youngest persons ever appointed, and she became a Dame of the Order before her big brother Edward was made a Knight of it. Of course, the places for knights were always strictly limited, but King Richard seems to have appointed as many women as he liked, including several widows of distinguished soldiers. The honour was probably a sop to Edmund of Langley at a time when the King needed all the friends he could muster, but I like to think that Richard had a fondness for Constance as well.

I'm afraid I can't tell you when the marriage between Constance and Thomas was consummated. Or whether he courted her or just dived in. What I can say is that he was away quite a lot. With the King to Scotland in 1385 (probably as a page, given his age.) Then with Arundel on a naval expedition against the French in 1388, during which Arundel knighted him. Then to Prussia in 1391, on one of the 'crusades' against the Lithuanians that were so fashionable for young knights in those days - roughly the 14th century version of the Grand Tour. He was granted full possession of his lands in March 1394, just in time to accompany the King on that very rare thing - a successful English campaign in Ireland.

There is some debate about how many children Thomas and Constance had, one internet source giving them quite a castle full. However the Tewkesbury Chronicle sticks at three, and the first with a definite date of birth was Richard Despenser, born 30th November 1396. Which means that Constance missed out on the King's wedding to Isabelle of France!

Thomas Despenser had earned the King's favour, and was one of those involved in the arrest and prosecution of Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick. He received a share of their lands, which, interestingly, were granted to him and Constance in jointure. This was not the case for anyone else and suggests that either Thomas or (less probably) King Richard, wanted to make sure that Constance would be well-provided for in the event of Despenser's death.

On 29th September 1397 Thomas was created Earl of Gloucester and Constance became a Countess. The future must have looked very rosy indeed!

Two Weddings, Two Executions, and Two Banishments

Readers of Anya Seton's Katherine will be familiar with the heroine's eventual marriage to John of Gaunt in 1396. What may they not appreciate is how far Richard II went to facilitate it. There was of course the little matter of obtaining a dispensation from Rome, but what was also needed in the circumstances, to make Gaunt's Beaufort children eligible to inherit land, was a special Act of Parliament. This was arranged, the whole process being further evidence of the profitable alliance between Gaunt and the King.

Others were less pleased, especially, we are told, the court ladies. Now, this may seem fearfully snobby to you, and no doubt it was, but imagine that you had been working in an office for twenty or thirty years, and suddenly the office boy was promoted over your head. That's much how these women would have felt. The Chronicles tell us that Philippa, Countess of Arundel, was one of those most offended. (The Countess of Derby is also mentioned, but given that Bolingbroke's wife had been dead for two years it's unlikely she had any objection, unless her opinion was canvassed by planchette. I suppose the reference may indicate what Bolingbroke himself thought, but that's just my speculation.)

King Richard himself was also in the market for a new wife. He was offered Yolande of Aragon and probably made the biggest mistake of his life by turning her down. (Yolande would have had Bolingbroke for dinner, then asked for dessert.) The reason was that the French, alarmed at the possibility of an Anglo-Aragonese alliance, offered their eldest available princess, Isabelle. She was just a little girl, but the offer was the basis for what Richard had been after for several years - a settled peace with France.

Peace with France was not the simple matter that it sounds. There were a number of technical issues connected with the English landholdings in France that were difficult to solve without loss of face on one side or the other. This is what held things up through the 1390s as short truces were negotiated while a final solution could be agreed. In the end it was not possible to come to satisfactory terms for a peace treaty as such, but a 28 year truce was agreed. Richard's opposition still held that the terms gave too much to the French; Gloucester's compliance with the treaty was quite literally bought by the King, others like Arundel still grumbled on in the background. Many of the nobles and gentry saw the war as a potential money-spinner - making peace was a bit like cancelling the National Lottery and disappointing the hopes of everyone who wants to be a millionaire.

However, the marriage and truce treaty went ahead, and Isabelle was duly handed over just outside Calais, the English ladies receiving her headed by the new Duchess of Lancaster, no doubt to a background of further female grumbling.

Richard now decided that there was a plot against him, led by the former Appellants. Whether there was really a plot is something of a mystery. Maybe some of those around the King told him that there was; maybe the endless grumbling of Gloucester and his friends made Richard think they were planning a coup. Maybe Richard decided he had had enough. Anyway, he summoned Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick to a banquet. Only Warwick turned up and he was promptly arrested. Richard led a motley crew of followers, including many Londoners under their Mayor, Richard Whittington, out to Pleshey Castle in Essex. Arriving early in the morning, the King arrested Gloucester and sent him off to Calais in the care of Thomas Mowbray, his one-time ally.
Arundel, persuaded by his brother, Archbishop Thomas Arundel, gave himself up.

More details in the future, but for now the bare bones must suffice. After trial in Parliament, with Gaunt himself in the Chair, and with Bolingbroke turned King's Evidence, Arundel was beheaded and Warwick banished to the Isle of Man for life. Archbishop Arundel was also banished. As for Gloucester, it was announced he had died in Calais. The truth was he was still alive, unknown to the King. His private execution was still a few days in the future.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Richard II and his Treasure

I had forgotten about this rather wonderful site but recommend it to anyone wanting to know more about Richard II and some of his possessions.

Fotheringhay Castle and Church

This site shows all that is left of the Yorks' home castle, Fotheringhay - not very much. It's sometimes said that King James I ordered the demolition of the castle in 'revenge' for his mother's 'murder'. The truth is that it was already regarded as unsatisfactory accommodation in Henry VIII's reign, and it became more and more neglected. Its demolition in the 17th century reflects the reality that it was no longer used for its original purpose but was a very suitable quarry for quality stonework.

Fotheringhay today is an extremely attractive village, and well worth a visit if you are in the area, though you may find the castle a disappointment. The church is exceptional, though what remains is less than half the former size.

Edmund of Langley planned a college of priests (intended to pray for his soul and those of other family members) inside the castle, based on an enlarged chapel. This was not completed before his death in 1402, probably because he hadn't the money to endow it. His son Edward, who probably felt he needed prayers more than most, put most of his lands into trust before his death at Agincourt so that his alternative scheme could be completed. This entailed a rebuild of the chancel of the parish church, within which he was buried. There was also accommodation for the staff of priests. Richard the third Duke had the nave rebuilt to match in the same style employed by his uncle. It is this nave that survives today. Inside is a magnificent 15th century pulpit and the rather cheap tombs provided by Queen Elizabeth I for the reburial of Dukes Edward and Richard - the originals having been left in disarray when the chancel was demolished.

There are more photos of the church here courtesy the Worcester Branch of the Richard III Society.

The photo was taken from the castle mound in 2004 and shows its relationship to the church.

The Death of Anne of Bohemia and the quarrel with Arundel.

Richard Fitzalan, Earl of Arundel, was one of the richest men in the kingdom, and had further boosted his income by marrying Philippa, Countess of Pembroke, a young lady with 'extensive grounds' in the right of her former husband. (When she died in 1400, still only 25, she was seised of lands in twenty-three counties.)

Arundel married her without the King's permission, and was landed with a heavy fine, as usual in such circumstances. Philippa had been born a Mortimer, sister to no less a person than Roger Mortimer, Earl of March, one of the potential candidates for the succession.

It seems that Arundel was rather fond of his young wife, and he started rebuilding one of his castles in her honour, naming it Castle Philippe. Well, fair enough, it was likely her cash that was paying the contractors. It might have been better for him if he'd stuck to this new hobby, but being Arundel, he had an irresistible urge to start kicking off again. In the Parliament of 1394 he pretty well accused John of Gaunt of treason, or at least of having far too much influence over, and too little respect for, the King. Coming from Arundel this was very much a case of the pot informing the kettle that it had a black bottom. King Richard made Arundel publicly apologise to Gaunt in front of the whole Parliament, and we can probably take it as read that Gaunt and Arundel were not on each other's Christmas card list after this episode!

In the early summer of 1394 Queen Anne - Anne of Bohemia - died suddenly at Sheen. It's usually put down to plague, but if so it was a funny sort of plague as no one else at court seems to have caught it.

King Richard was devastated. He was deeply attached to Anne, and indeed she was one of his few close companions to have made it unscathed through the upheavals of 1386-88. He had even built a special house on an island in the Thames next to Sheen Palace so they could escape to it together. This sort of privacy was unprecedented, and indeed was not to be repeated for several centuries. Royals were expected to live in grandeur, surrounded by the important members of their court - not to hide away! Richard gave orders that the whole palace of Sheen was to be demolished. It was, and he never went there again.

A state funeral was arranged, and all the nobility, plus their wives, invited for the occasion. Arundel and his countess arrived late, and then asked permission to leave early. This was at best impolite - it smacks of a deliberate insult. The King lost his temper, snatched a staff from one of the Abbey officers, and laid Arundel out on the tiles. Because the earl's blood flowed onto the floor the Abbey had to be reconsecrated and the funeral was delayed until this could be done.

Arundel spent a week in the Tower before being released, but the quarrel was far from over. The difference now was that he was not just up against the King, but Gaunt as well. A wise man might have 'lain low and said nuffin'.

Wednesday, 19 March 2008

Richard II cuts Gaunt a new deal

Prior to his uncle's departure for Spain in 1386, there's no question that Richard II was deeply suspicious of John of Gaunt, not least because various people were in the habit of telling him that Gaunt had designs on his throne. They were probably both glad to see the back of each other!

The events of 1386-1388 certainly gave Richard cause to think again. When Gaunt returned in late 1389, he was warmly received and over the next few months was appointed to the council, had the palatine powers he enjoyed in Lancashire extended to his heirs, and was made Duke of Aquitaine. To the annoyance of some, King Richard often walked arm-in-arm with his uncle, and on occasions even wore his livery collar of esses - 'as a sign of the complete amity between us,' Richard explained, probably with a smug grin on his face.

Though the Appellants, particularly Gloucester, were brought in from the cold, there is little doubt that he had not forgiven them, and this shows in small ways. Gaunt's heir, Henry Bolingbroke, received very little from the King in the way of offices or appointments, in complete contrast to the lavish appointments rained on Edward, Earl of Rutland, his junior in both precedence and age.

The next few years were relatively free from discord, and even Richard's biggest critics struggle to find fault with his performance, though they generally give the credit to Gaunt and the Queen for their moderating influences. Of course, it was rather difficult for the opposition to make many waves as long as the King and Gaunt stuck together. Gaunt was enormously wealthy - by comparison Warwick the Kingmaker was a pauper - and, as part of his attempt to take over Spain, he had retained vast numbers of the English knighthood and gentry in his service. These factors were eventually to rebound on Richard to some tune, but for the time being, they were his life insurance.

As an aside, some of you may enjoy reading this review of Alison Weir's book on Katherine Swynford which comments on the private side of Gaunt's life.

Also there's another royal geneology site here for anyone still struggling with who is who. It's very comprehensive.

Saturday, 15 March 2008


I wrote an illustrated article on this subject for the New England Chapter of the Richard III Society, which you can find on their site here. It's relevant to this blog as I used the York window at Fotheringhay as a working example - this provides the heraldry of some of the people I have been discussing on here, and of others we shall come to in the future.

The crisis of 1386-1388

Richard II was still a teenager in 1386, remember, but there had never been a regency established (mainly because most people were deeply suspicious of John of Gaunt, the obvious guy for the job) and Richard had, nominally, ruled from the start. The reality was that at first the council took the strain, with the King gradually taking more responsibility as he grew older.

No sooner had Gaunt shot off to Spain to pursue his claim to the throne of Castile than the opposition, led by the King's youngest uncle, Gloucester, started to get stroppy. They imposed a one year Commission on Richard that was given power to supervise almost everything he did. Richard, unhappy with this, refused to co-operate and went off on progress, recruiting as many supporters as he could - mainly in Cheshire. He also put some questions to the judges about the legality of the Commission and the status of those who had advocated it. The judges were clear in their ruling - the Commission was illegal and those who had advocated it were traitors.

This ruling was kept secret, but walls at court had ears, and the news leaked out to Gloucester and his allies, who immediately had visions of their important heads being stuck on spikes. To cut a long story short Gloucester, with the earls of Warwick and Arundel, raised an army to defend themselves. They were joined by Henry Bolingbroke (Gaunt's heir) and Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, a little later. (These last two were young men, and Mowbray, previously in Richard's in-crowd, had lately married Arundel's daughter.)

Robert de Vere, Duke of Ireland and Earl of Oxford, tried to bring a royalist army down from Cheshire, but was defeated at Radcot Bridge in Oxfordshire, and had to flee the country. King Richard, stuck in the Tower and virtually defenceless, had no choice but to grant the demand of the Appellants (as the rebels are known to history) for a parliament and the trial of their enemies.

The Appellants proceeded to rub Richard's nose in it just has hard as they dared. They conducted a purge of his household, excluding various people they thought a bad influence, and used the Parliament to treat various of Richard's advisers as traitors. Most of those they could get their hands on were executed, while the judges who had given Richard such dangerous advice were banished to Ireland for life. Needless to say, the Appellants concluded business by arranging for themselves to be voted a healthy bonus for their trouble! The tone of the Parliament has come down to us in its name - The Merciless Parliament. It was exactly that.

If you read the Chronicles of the time you may gain the impression that Richard had ignored the advice of his elders and listened to the young, thus bringing about this disaster. This is pure unmitigated weapons-grade BS, worthy of Dr Goebbels. There was only one of those accused by Parliament who was remotely young - Robert de Vere, a man in his late twenties and holder of one of the premier earldoms in the country. Sir Simon Burley, for example, had been a trusted servant of the Black Prince and Richard's tutor. Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk had served Gaunt for donkey's years before taking office under Richard. You don't need me to tell you that the mayor of London and the senior judges of the land were scarcely to be described as boys!

No, what these people had in common was that Gloucester and his friends regarded them as being in the way, or, in the case of the judges, dangerous to their health.

Some of this might have been justified had the Appellants proved themselves better at government than Richard who, it must be admitted, had not exactly been setting the house on fire with his ability. The fact is they were no more up to the job than he was, and arguably less so. Richard's people skills soon detached Bolingbroke and Mowbray from the coalition, and in 1389 the King simply announced to his council that was taking power back into his own hands. No one said a word to the contrary.

Richard immediately began to build up a new party of his own supporters - one of the leading lights in this was his cousin, Edward of York, Earl of Rutland. Moreover, as soon as Gaunt returned to England, Richard offered him a new deal. The political landscape was dramatically transformed.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

On a Lighter Note...

You may have fun with the House of York quizzes here.

They are quite tough - I didn't get a perfect score in either!

The Problems of Richard II

Medieval government was very dependent on the personal strengths (or weaknesses) of the reigning sovereign. If the king was unable to act for some reason, perhaps because he was temporarily unwell, it did not take long for the structure to start to creak. It's true that there was a bureaucracy (the ancestor of the civil service) and a council (not quite a cabinet, but capable of taking some executive decisions on the king's absence) but the king's input was vital.

Richard came to the throne while he was still a child, and there's no doubt that he had been raised by his father, the Black Prince, with a very high estimation of his own sacred person and of the royal prerogative. In a sense this was not controversial - there was no questioning of the king's right to rule, or of his exalted status in the hierarchy. The first problem was that he never developed the broad relationship with the nobility that Edward III (for example) had enjoyed - one has the impression that he was on a slightly different wavelength to people like his Uncle Gloucester, or the Earl of Arundel. He preferred to rule through a clique of his own choice, not always giving his important relatives the power they thought they deserved. (Come to think of it Edward IV ruled in the same way, so maybe Richard wasn't that far out?)

The second problem was that he had an awful lot of relatives to satisfy, and there was no way he was ever going to make them all happy. Medieval politics (if not politics in general) was ultimately all about the control of patronage, the gift of land, offices and revenues. The available pot was very small, and Richard had a nasty habit of giving most to the people he liked rather than those he disliked. Fancy that!

Third, the country was practically bankrupt. The long war with France which was so much part of the package of Edward III's allegedly glorious reign had resulted in the crown amassing intolerable debts. The normal revenue of England was only just enough to keep things ticking over - war meant taxation, and taxation was unpopular except (rarely) when the war was going really well. It was deeply unpopular when we were losing. The appalling financial straits that Richard inherited resulted in such measures as the Poll Tax which bore down most heavily on those least able to pay. (It would seem we still have the same taxation philosophy 627 years later.)

Several historians have explored Richard's psychological profile and developed various theories the latest of which - in Nigel's Saul's biography - is that the king was narcissistic. I'm no psychiatrist but I suppose my theory is as good as anyone else's. I suspect Richard was a depressive, maybe even bipolar. This would explain the difficulty he had in functioning at times, his occasional passionate - even violent - outbursts, and the problems he had with relationships outside his 'circle of trust'.

More another day...

The Yorkist Fetterlock

The usual badge or cognizance of the York family in the early years was the Fetterlock, usually with a falcon inside it. By the way, if anyone wonders what a fetterlock is, there's a nice picture here.

There were no white roses anywhere. This device seems to come from the Mortimer family and is traditionally associated with Clifford Castle which is near Hay-on-Wye. The first member of the York family qualified to use it would be Richard, the third duke.

The first two dukes also made some use of the ostrich feathers, more usually associated with the Black Prince, but used in various ways by all Edward III's sons.

It is said that Edmund of Langley chose the closed fetterlock as a badge because he felt that he and his family were shut out from the throne by senior claims. Be that as it may, it is a fact that after the accession of Edward IV, the fetterlock was always shown as open.

Tuesday, 11 March 2008

The influential Lady Mohun and her daughter.

In his book The Court of Richard II Father Gervase Mathew stated that Joan, Lady Mohun was one of the more influential ladies of Richard's court. This seems likely to be true, if only because the Appellants banished her from court in 1388 - they'd scarcely have bothered if she'd just been sitting there quietly producing embroidery, would they?

One of Anne of Bohemia's last acts was to grant Lady Mohun Leeds Castle, in Kent. Not a bad Christmas present you may think! Yet there are some dunderheads around who believe that medieval noblewomen were all powerless nonentities. True, they didn't have the vote, or the right to sit in councils and parliaments, but they had influence, direct and indirect, and some of them knew how to use it.

Lady Mohun had been granted a jointure in all her late husband's lands. To finance her comfortable life at court she sold the reversion to the Lutterell family (of psalter fame) and thus disinherited her three daughters.

The youngest of these was Philippa, who most improbably became the wife of Edward of York around 1397. She was at least 10 years older than her husband - Pugh is unkind enough to suggest that she was old enough to be his mother.

Philippa had been married twice before, but had no children. It seems odd that Edward, the heir of York, should have chosen a wife who was most unlikely to give him a son. Moreover, a woman who was not an heiress, merely in possession of a life interest in her modest Fitzwalter and Golafre dower properties. The explanation seems to be that Edward was not a conventional thinker, and he simply loved her. This is one of his more endearing qualities. Some of you may find (lack of children apart) some congruence with the tale of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville a couple of generations on.

Although Edward and Philippa were certainly married by 1398, in which year, at the height of his power as Duke of Aumale, Lord High Constable, etc., etc., he procured from the Pope a Plenary Indulgence to cover them both - a buy yourself out of purgatory card. Apart from this Philippa is rarely mentioned in the early years of their marriage and did not, for example, get Garter robes as his consort until 1408. I've often scratched my head over why this might have been, but am forced back to the conclusion that medieval clerks made as many mistakes as modern computer operators.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Richard III Novel

Like the dog returning to its vomit, I am working on my Richard III novel again, having decided that the seven chapters I have completed are not quite the total write-off I thought, and with some polishing, may just do.

My idleness, general ill health, and tendency to start other projects - I have at least three other potential novels lined up - have delayed this shamefully. There have been some technical problems too, the latest of which is that I've too fairly significant characters both called Elizabeth. This may be confusing for the reader, but I will not change one of them to Gladys or something, and I'm a bit hesitant to use diminutives given that these are rather grand ladies, one a queen, one a duchess. They both feel like 'Elizabeths' to me!

So I think I shall just plough on and leave it to the edits, unless anyone has any better ideas. One can but hope for intelligent readers.

I pass lightly over the fact that most of the men not called 'John' seem to be 'Richard'. Gaaah! Why did not medieval people get their babies' names off the internet?

Claims to the Throne

On the subject of claims to the throne, it has to be said that in the late 14th century the rules had not been fully worked out. It was fairly clear that a king would normally be succeeded by his eldest son, but what would happen in the event of a king dying without a son was far less clear.

It appears that towards the end of his reign Edward III purported to entail the crown on John of Gaunt in the event of Richard II dying without heirs. Rather illogical, since Edward had been loudly laying claim to France since 1340 on the basis of inheritance through his mother. However, logic is not always a strength of the world of politics, and the reality was that the king was senile and under the thumb of John of Gaunt, so that may have had something to do with it.

Richard II apparently decided that his successor should be Roger Mortimer Earl of March, who was the grandson of Lionel of Clarence, Gaunt's elder brother. This is faithfully recorded by the Westminster Chronicle, but the issue does not appear to have been entirely settled, and one suspects that Gaunt, his son Henry Bolingbroke, and maybe Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, the king's youngest uncle, had other ideas.

Towards the end of his reign the question became even more open. Gaunt was dead, Bolingbroke was banished and declared a traitor, and Roger Mortimer, killed in Ireland in 1398, had fallen from favour and been recalled before his death, probably to face the music. Though Roger had a son (the same Earl of March involved in the Southampton Conspiracy) it seems Richard at this point made Edmund of Langley his heir. This is certainly the belief of Ian Mortimer in Fears of Henry IV and if he is correct it the House of York opened the Fetterlock rather more completely than I thought!

More on Mortimer's book, and Henry's rather dodgy claim, at another time. Suffice it to say that Henry IV entailed the succession on his heirs by parliamentary statute, the first sovereign to do so. (The practice later became quite fashionable!) When Edward IV succeeded, however, he did not enact a succession statute, because he believed he was the legitimate heir of Richard II, through his Mortimer grandmother. By modern succession arrangements, at least, he was correct.

Plantagenet Family Tree

One or two of you are struggling to follow the relationships, and I don't wonder. So I am providing a few online resources that may help.

There's a PDF family tree here that I think is quite cool. At least it shows Constance which is more than some of them do.

There's another on Wiki here

If nothing else, these should point out the extreme thinness of Henry VII's claim to the throne!

If you would like some more meaty reading online, I suggest a look at Michael Miller's Wars of the Roses. I don't necessarily agree with all his conclusions, but as a convenient starting point for the era, it cannot be bettered. If you want to know how the kingdom's finances worked, or what a Great Council was about, the appendixes are well worth a look.

Sunday, 9 March 2008

The White Rose of Langley

If you would like to read another novel about Constance of York after digesting Within the Fetterlock, you could try The White Rose of Langley by Emily S Holt which is available through
Project Gutenburg.

I do have to warn you though that Ms Holt is a Victorian writer and her views about the Roman Catholic Church in particular are distinctly non-PC. (If you are wondering, all the 'good' characters are, or become, Lollards.) I should hate anyone to be offended.

It is, nonetheless, an interesting read in parts and you may enjoy comparing and contrasting her interpretation of Constance against mine.

Oddly enough, I can't think of any other novel that focuses on the House of York in its early years, though there are a number written around the Lancaster bunch.

Maud Clifford secures a good divorce settlement.

It's often stated, and not without good reason, that women got a raw deal in medieval times. Maud Clifford (c1391-1446), however, did very well out of her divorce.

Her first husband was John Neville, Lord Latimer (1382-1430) whom she married prior to 1406. It would appear that marriage was never consummated, and Maud sued for annulment. (Pugh thinks that Latimer was probably gay, but he could equally have been impotent, or just plain not very interested in Maud.) In any event, Maud's plea was successful and the marriage dissolved.

Some (of Neville's) lands had been put put into trust for Maud, or, to use the technical term, granted to feoffees. The feoffees must have been sympathetic to Maud, because they allowed her to keep the lands, even though the marriage was invalid!

Thus Maud was free to marry Richard of Conisbrough, which she did probably in 1414. Following his execution on 5 August 1415 she continued to live at Conisbrough Castle until her death in 1446. The brief marriage produced no children, as far as anyone knows.

One sign that the Earl of March may have felt guilty about his betrayal of Cambridge was that he granted Maud an annuity of £100.

Saturday, 8 March 2008

The Lollard Movement

In response to Joan's request, a few notes on the Lollard movement. It grew out of dissatisfaction with the corruption of the medieval Catholic Church. However, while some critics remained within the Church and (for example) supported new and more austere religious orders, the Lollards developed a range of beliefs that were regarded as heresy.

The founder of the movement is usually said to be John Wycliffe who, among other things, translated the Bible into English. Some people think that the movement actually started before Wycliffe, but it is at times hard to distinguish Lollardy from straightforward desire for reform.

Lollards did not all believe the same things. Typically they favoured the disendowment of the Church; they disapproved of swearing, at a time when most people were pretty liberal with profane oaths; they usually denied the virtue of pilgrimages or images; most denied transubstantiation; they denied the authority of priesthood and the importance of blessings or other ritual; they saw no need for clerical celibacy; some argued that priests and secular rulers had no authority unless they were in a state of grace. Extremists in the movement argued that property should be held in common.

In the early years they were supported by John of Gaunt and other nobles, who were far from opposed to stripping the Church of its vast property. However Wycliffe's denial of transubstantiation was a bridge too far for most. Nevertheless an influential group of Lollard knights were to be found at Richard II's court. These included Sir Thomas Latimer, Sir John Trussel, Sir Lewis Clifford, Sir John Peachey, Sir Richard Storey, Sir Reginald Hilton, William Nevil and John Clanvowe.

One group of Lollards petitioned Parliament with The Twelve Conclusions of the Lollards by posting them on the doors of Westminster Hall in February 1395. Richard II was absent in Ireland at the time, and was greatly angered. He threatened to execute the Lollard members of his court unless they retracted their opinions. However, he did not. Indeed the well-known Lollard Sir John Montagu (or Montacute, take your pick) later Earl of Salisbury, remained high in his favour to the end of his reign.

Henry IV allowed the passage of the famous Statute De heretico comburendo. During his reign two Lollards were burnt, a priest and a layman. Ironically Richard II had questioned Henry's loyalty to the Church. It is probable Henry was influenced by his important supporter Archbishop Arundel, who was a strong opponent of the Lollards.

Henry V had a Lollard friend, Sir John Oldcastle - once Henry became king, Oldcastle was involved in a significant Lollard revolt against him. The rising was crushed. Oldcastle was captured and executed by being both hanged and burnt at the same time! (This was quite separate from the Cambridge conspiracy, although it appears there was an attempt to draw Lollards into the latter.)

Lollardy did not die out, of course, it was merely driven underground. There were a few isolated executions under the Lancastrian and Yorkist kings, and in Tudor times the movement was subsumed into Protestantism. It was left to Henry VIII and Mary I to make the most use of Henry IV's Statute.

Friday, 7 March 2008

John of Gaunt - Constanza of Castile

A rather nice picture of them on the web here.

Tweak the heraldry a bit, and it would do equally well for Edmund of Langley and Isabel!

Edward of York - the early years

Edward, destined to be the second Duke of York, was probably born in 1373. (As usual with medievals we don't know the exact date.) He's sometimes known to historians as Edward of Norwich, although there's absolutely no indication that he was born there or had any connection with it - I only mention this to avoid confusion.

Now I must admit - I like Edward. Despite the fact that he was one of the most double-dealing rogues in English history, a man who makes Thomas, Lord Stanley look like a model of consistency and loyal devotion. There's something about him - his sheer bloody cheek for one thing. Despite holding the medieval equivalent of the Guiness Book of Records title for number of times accused of treason without actually being executed he was never fazed. He just keeps popping up again, like one of those little plastic men that live in the bottom of a birdcage. There was no vat of crap, however deep, from which he could not emerge, grinning and smelling of roses.

He was knighted at the coronation of his cousin, Richard II, in 1377. Not bad going that, four years old and already a knight. In 1381 he was married to Beatriz of Portugal, and if his father had not made such a mess of the Portuguese expedition Edward might have become King of Portugal, because Beatriz was her father's heiress. Instead her father had second thoughts and married her to the son of his enemy, the King of Castile, and paid to send Edmund of Langley, his wife, son, and attendant unruly army back home. Collapse of England's Iberian policy - no wonder John of Gaunt was far from a happy bunny.

Back home Edward was created a Knight of the Garter in 1387 and in 1390 was made Earl of Rutland. At this point he is already becoming a close ally of his cousin the King, and by late 1391 he was Admiral of England - one of the 'big' offices of state. Much more was to come.

Southampton Plot - initial thoughts

I've been trying to make sense of the Southampton Plot, I really have. Pugh is again my main source, and first of all I have to say that the confessions all contradict one another for a start. They are also mutilated, so the documents only give half a tale at best.

Perhaps it's time to mention that Richard was created Earl of Cambridge by Henry V. This was one of brother Edward's spare titles and no money or land went with it. Apart from the right to sit in Parliament it was no more than a courtesy title, and Richard may well have felt disappointed - perhaps even insulted.

One thing is clear - if Cambridge and his chums hoped to pull this one off as described they were a bunch of nincompoops. The only other possibility is that there were other people involved - quite a few at that - who somehow managed to avoid the flak. Or the whole thing was somehow a setup - maybe Mossad were in there?

Richard's main home seems to have become Conisbrough Castle, which he presumably rented or borrowed from his elder brother, York, who owned it. As his second wife he married Maud Clifford, sister of Lord Clifford. (More about her later.) It appears he tried to drag Clifford into the plot, but Clifford wasn't having any of it.

Another person involved was Lord Scrope of Masham, who was married to Richard's stepmother, the erstwhile Joanne Holland. This is unlikely to have been a powerful family link, because Scrope and the Dowager Duchess were like cat and dog - Joanne even did a bunk with a stack of Scrope's property at one point. Scrope claimed that he had got involved only to betray the plot, but of course he would say that, wouldn't he?

The other main conspirator was Sir Thomas Grey of Heton, whose young son had recently 'married' Cambridge's daughter, Isabel. So it's sort of a family affair. The Earl of March came in as Richard's former brother-in-law of course.

There was also some chap called Howell who was supposed to raise Wales - he was a squire from Pembroke, so this was asking a lot.

Plan of action - swap someone (not clear who, but maybe Murdoch Earl of Fife) with the Scots for the pretend Richard II (who was already dead) and Harry Percy (Hotspur's heir, who had just signed a deal with Henry V to come home and be Earl of Northumberland).

Next, if Richard II turned out to be dead (which he was) rush off to Wales with the Earl of March and declare him king. Hope that everyone will rally round.

At some point, kill Henry V and his brothers.

Not very promising is it? I mean, would you join up to something as hare-brained as that?

March wimped out and told Henry V what was going on behind his back. Cambridge and the rest were promptly arrested, found that confessions and pleas for mercy didn't work with this king, and were swiftly executed.

It really doesn't make sense, and I wonder what modern conspiracy theorists would make of it.

Edmund of Langley blows his top - the details

The source is the Westminster Chronicle and by the way I didn't pay anything like the current Amazon UK price of £105. Lord, I should want it written out by a monk on parchment for that!

The year is 1388.

'...on 27 April, the Duke of York rose in full parliament on behalf of Sir Simon Burley, who, he declared, had been in all his dealings loyal to the king and the realm; and to anybody who wished to deny or gainsay this, he would himself give the lie and prove the point in personal combat. In reply the Duke of Gloucester said that Burley had been false to his allegiance, and this he offered to prove, if need were, with his own sword arm and without multiplying arguments. At this the Duke of York turned white with anger and told his brother to his face that he was a liar, only to receive a prompt retort in kind from the Duke of Gloucester; and after this exchange they would have hurled themselves upon each other had not the King, with characteristic mildness and goodwill, (my emphasis) been quick to calm them down.

For anyone who doesn't know, Burley was eventually executed, although he doesn't appear to have done anything outstandingly wrong. Except, of course, like various other people, he got up the Duke of Gloucester's nose.

Yet we are all supposed to feel sorry for poor old martyr Gloucester when Richard has him taken out in 1397!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Edmund of Langley

Before I go on to the Southampton plot, or start writing about two of the people I like most from all of history, I think I should say a bit about their dad, Edmund of Langley, father of the House of York.

Historians tend to be a bit sniffy about Edmund, generally rating him as incompetent, stupid, and generally useless - though I suspect he'd be better company on a pub crawl than most of them. If Edmund lived today he'd be driving a muddy Range Rover with dogs and shotguns in the back, and his feet would be clad in green wellies. He was much more interested in hunting than in politics, so the Chroniclers tell us. He also had an eye for the ladies, and according to Froissart was very much attached to his second wife, Joanne Holland - a mere 13 when she married him in 1393. (Different times, very different rules.)

Edmund was born in June 1341, the fifth (but fourth surviving) son of King Edward III and Queen Philippa. He started receiving grants of land as early as 1347, and his livelihood was gradually built up as he grew older, though he was never even a quarter as rich as big brother Gaunt. He took his fair share of fighting in the ongoing war against France, and he and Gaunt persuaded the Black Prince to halt the massacre of the people of Limoges - though it must be said that the main concern was to save French nobles. Edmund was given the Garter in 1361, and a year later was created Earl of Cambridge.

His first independent command was in Portugal 1381-82, and it turned out to be a complete fiasco. John of Gaunt never quite forgave him, and stated in his will that none of his money was to go to settling the accounts of the expedition.

York, like the rest of his family, was favoured by King Richard II, three times being left in charge of the country during Richard's absences, and gradually accumulating offices. Despite what the Chroniclers say, he was often at court and a fairly regular attender at councils and witnesser of charters. He does not seem to have suffered from his brothers' chronic ambition and in political terms was a moderate, essentially loyal to his nephew even if not always enthusiastic about his policies.

In 1388 he quarrelled violently in Parliament with his formidable brother Gloucester about the proposed execution of Sir Simon Burley, going so far as to challenge Gloucester to mortal combat over the issue. Strangely this episode is rarely mentioned by historians, perhaps because it might suggest that Edmund had some backbone, or that Richard II's enemies were not always supported by everyone who mattered.

The Yorkist Age

Time, I think, to pay a small tribute to the book from which this Blogspot shamelessly ripped its title - The Yorkist Age by Paul Murray Kendall.

Most people interested enough to read this will be familiar with Kendall's more famous book Richard III but The Yorkist Age seems to be strangely neglected. That's a pity, because it focuses on daily life, and tells interesting (but factual) stories about the ordinary people (and a few of the less ordinary) that made up Yorkist England. You'll find pirates, mayors and merchants, lords and lawyers, ladies in love, ambitious yeoman and bored nuns. You won't be bored, I promise you.

Need I add that it's a fruitful source for those little details that are sought by historical novelists? If I had to take six books with me to a desert island, The Yorkist Age would be one of them.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Katherine Swynford - a diversion.

It's amazing what you find out when you start writing a Blog like this. For example, I had no idea that there was a Katherine Swynford Society . But there is! Indeed there's also a Yahoo Group dedicated to her. I can only think that Philippa, Countess of Arundel, is spinning in her grave at a rate of knots.

Constance is majorly pissed off. 'Why, pray, is there not a Constance of York Society?' she demands. I can see her elegant eyebrows arching northwards - except of course she does tend to shave them off.

'You ain't as famous as her, princess. Not yet!'

Richard of Conisbrough part 2

As his name suggests, Richard was born at Conisbrough Castle in Yorkshire. If it was indeed in 1385 it may well be that the Yorks moved there in time for Edmund to join Richard II's expedition to Scotland.

Little is known of Richard's early life - read nothing. He first shows up in Henry IV's coronation procession, but there is no mention anywhere of his doing or saying anything at this time, or being recognised in any way. It does suggest he was quite young.

In 1404 he is found fighting in Wales and the borders against Owen Glendower (Owain Glyn Dwr). In this role he was effectively a lieutenant of Henry, Prince of Wales, the future Henry V.

In 1406 Richard was at last knighted, and sent off to Denmark as escort for Henry IV's younger daughter, who was to be married to King Eric. Pugh says he was given this task because 'he was the least important (and most expendable) member of the English royal house'. (Typical Pugh comment - he tells it like it is, but harsher.)

At some point about this time Richard married Anne Mortimer, sister of the Earl of March. They had at least one thing in common - she didn't have a bean either. However, after her death, she turned out to be her brother's heiress, which was right useful for her son and grandsons, as you shall see. The marriage was in secret (shades of Edward IV, Richard's grandson) and they had to send off to Rome for a Papal Dispensation to put things right. This was granted in 1408.

In the same year Anne inherited some land, through her late mother, from her uncle, Edmund, Earl of Kent. Yes, Richard finally owned some land! Not a lot, but some.

Richard had two children, Richard and Isabel. There was also possibly another son, Henry, but if he existed he must have died very young.

Anne Mortimer (who may have been slightly younger even than I suggested in Within the Fetterlock) died in 1411 and was buried in the same tomb as her in-laws at King's Langley. Her death may have been caused by the birth of her son, Richard. She was certainly not much more than 21 years old, and possibly younger.

The Enigma that is Richard of Conisbrough

An invaluable resource for anyone interested in the early history of the House of York is Henry V and the Southampton Plot by T.B.Pugh. I don't always agree with Pugh's conclusions - he is quite hard on poor old Constance for example - but the book does contain almost all that is known about Richard of Conisbrough. Or as he perhaps should be called, Richard the Obscure.

Pugh believes that Richard was born in 1385, and although this contradicts what you may read elsewhere, I agree with him, because it makes sense. Richard was never knighted by his cousin, King Richard II, indeed did not achieve this status until 1406 at the hands of another cousin, Henry IV, at a time when bro. and sis. were both languishing in jail. Given that the Yorks were high in Richard II's favour it seems unlikely to me that a Richard born in say, 1375, would have got to 24 without being made at least a knight. Moreover that annuity I mentioned (worth a total of £333. 6s 8d when the Exchequer had money in it) did not start to be paid until 1395, a couple of years after his mother's death.

Pugh has an even more interesting theory - that Richard was actually the son of John Holland, not Edmund of Langley! Now, the evidence is strictly circumstantial, and as a writer of fiction I would not have dared to suggest it. But as the theory comes from an academic historian of Pugh's standing, I think the idea is worth considering.

Edmund of Langley left his younger son nothing. Although primogeniture ruled, and much land was entailed to the eldest son, it was customary by this era to make some provision for younger sons. John of Gaunt, for example, bought manors for the benefit of his Beaufort sons. Edmund did not leave Richard so much as a coin, a sword, or a second-best bed. So it is possible, and I put it no stronger, that Edmund believed Richard was not his son. It might also explain why Duchess Isabel left almost everything she had (bar the odd keepsake) to provide for Richard's future.

Isabel of Castile, Duchess of York

Why did Edmund marry her? Well, it was undoubtedly part of big brother John of Gaunt's plan to secure the throne of Castile for himself. Gaunt married Isabel's elder sister, Constance, or Constanza. The two young women were the daughters and heirs of the deposed Castilian king, Pedro 'the Cruel' who had been murdered by his illegitimate half-brother. Said half-brother then nicked the throne.

From Edmund's point of view this was not a particularly good deal. He and his wife were required to sign over their rights to Castile to John of Gaunt and Constanza - I hope for a consideration. Apart from that Isabel hadn't much but the clothes she stood up in and a few jewels.

Isabel is buried at King's Langley - when her tomb was investigated by curious Victorians in the 19th century she was found to be quite a small lady, estimated 4' 8" in height. If the Chronicles are to believed she - er - liked a good time. It has been suggested that the Chroniclers - churchmen to a person - may have been hostile to her because she favoured the Lollards. This seems improbable, although she did have at least one known Lollard as an executor.
(The Lollards, for anyone who doesn't know, were a sort of early Protestant, though the range of opinions represented by the term is very wide. Orthodox clerics hated them with a passion.)

Isabel had three children, Edward, Constance and Richard, of whom more anon. She is also supposed to have had a lover, King Richard's half-brother, Sir John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon.
If true, this says little for her taste in men, as he was a distinctly nasty piece of work, involved in at least two murders.

When Isabel died in 1393 she left her jewels to King Richard, with a request that he provide an annuity for her younger son, Richard. This the King did, and on a relatively generous basis compared to the value of the bequest. Richard of Conisbrough (often known as Richard of York in his own time, but better known by his birthplace because of the danger of mixing him up with his more famous son) never had any land of his own, and this annuity remained his principal source of income. In royal family terms, he was a pauper.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Why 1385?

It was the date when Edmund of Langley was created first Duke of York, so it seems as good a starting point as any. To set the scene, the 'pacifist' Richard II was invading Scotland with the biggest army since Bannockburn. (Richard was not afraid of fighting in a good cause - in this case he was cheesed off because the French had landed troops in Scotland, thus creating a threat to English security.)

Along the way he gave his two younger uncles dukedoms. (Thomas of Woodstock, Earl of Buckingham, became Duke of Gloucester.) Their elder brother, John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, pretend King of Castile and Leon, etc., etc., was already suitably elevated, plus he had the lithesome Katherine Swynford to play with, so Richard wanted to square things up a little.

There was just one small snag. Money, or to be precise, the land that generated it in those days. (There was no stock market, and dukes couldn't part time it as architects or whatever.)

Thomas of Woodstock had married a nice heiress, but poor old Edmund of Langley's wife was Isabel of Castile, who had brought him diddly squat apart from a few jewels. (They had even had to sign her claim to Castile over to big brother John, who had married her elder sister.)

I don't want you to cry too much for Edmund, compared to the average ploughman or milkmaid we are mostly descended from he was on a nice little earner. But as medieval dukes went, he was pretty well on the bottom rung. Richard II gave him a grant from the exchequer of £1000 a year to support his dukedom, but the problem was that in those days the king (unlike modern politicians) could not just bleed everyone white with taxation. The exchequer was often empty, and Edmund could not rely on his salary cheque. The grant was supposed to be gradually replaced with land, and from time to time he and his successors got a manor or two tacked on to their rent roll. However, it remained a problem, even for Edmund's grandson, as I shall likely tell you when we get on to the third Duke.

The House of York 1385-1485

I've no idea why I'm interested in history in general or the House of York in particular - I just am. Perhaps it's (in part) that the York family included some of the most interesting and controversial characters in English medieval history.

I've already written two novels that feature the family. Within the Fetterlock is about Constance, daughter of the first Duke, Edmund of Langley, and her exploits in the reigns of Richard II and Henry IV. The Adventures of Alianore Audley, narrated by Constance's wholly fictional granddaughter, is a fun look at the times of Edward IV and Richard III. Yes, a fun look. History doesn't have to be deadly serious all the times. We are allowed to have a laugh.

This is a new venture for me. No idea how often I'll be scribbling my ideas on here. But I will try to keep mainly to the medieval Yorks, their families, friends, and Baldrics.