Monday, October 22, 2007

Elizabeth Woodville, Non-Bearer of Bad Tidings?

If you've read any Ricardian novel worthy of its genre, you've come across the following scene: in April 1483, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Anne, his childhood sweetheart, blissfully married, are enjoying a carefree moment in their beloved Yorkshire when a messenger rides up, bringing ill tidings: Edward IV is dead. As Richard absorbs this devastating news, the narrator, if he's at all reliable, will inform us sternly that the messenger was from William Hastings and not from Elizabeth Woodville. The latter, we'll be told, failed to tell Richard herself either (a) because of her mean-spirited character and/or (b) because of a Nasty Woodville plot to keep Richard in the dark about his brother's death for as long as possible. The latter gives rise to visions of the following scenario:

August 1483. Richard is frolicking in the moors with Anne when a messenger shuffles up.

Richard: Have you news, man?

Messenger: Oh, I suppose so. Your brother the king is dead.

Richard: No! NO! Anne, we must get to London as soon as possible to save the country from the evil Woodvilles!

Messenger: Don't bother. He died back in April. His son is already crowned and there's not a thing you can do about it. Us Woodvilles are in charge. (Cackles gleefully for a few minutes, then abruptly stops) Oh, but there is one thing you can do.

Richard (miserably): What?

Messenger: The Queen Mum will let you keep all of your castles, but she wants you to rename them. Got that? So from now, this will be known as Middlewood. Sheriff Hutton will be known as Sheriff Bessie.

Richard: NOOOOOO! (Runs off into moors and disappears forever, thereby depriving future generations of perfectly good subjects to blog about).


But seriously, is there truth to this story that Elizabeth Woodville and her family deliberately failed to let Richard know of his brother's death? I haven't found a contemporary source for it. The Croyland Chronicler, who most historians agree was a person highly placed at court, reports the controversy over the size of the escort the new king and his relations were to have, notes that Richard wrote cordial, reassuring letters to the queen after he learned of Edward's death, and states that Richard traveled to York to publicly mourn his brother. In all of this, he doesn't indicate who told Richard of his brother's death, but he doesn't suggest that anyone had been derelict in giving Gloucester the news or that it had come from an unexpected quarter. Mancini, whose account is by no means favorable to the Woodvilles, reports that there were conflicting opinions among the king's councilors as to what role Gloucester was to play in the minority government, and he writes that Hastings reported these deliberations to Richard and urged him to come to London quickly. As with Croyland, however, nothing in Mancini's account gives the impression that there had been any delay in notifying Richard of his brother's death or any impropriety in the way he was notified.

Based on these sources, the logical conclusion is that whether or not Elizabeth Woodville personally sent Richard the news (and it's not at all clear to me why she, as opposed to someone from the king's household like William Hastings, the king's chamberlain, would have been expected to do so), Richard learned of his brother's death via conventional means and within a reasonable time. Indeed, in their chronology of events in The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond--both associated with the Richard III Society--indicate, based on Mancinci, Croyland, and other contemporary sources, that Richard in Yorkshire probably received the news of Edward IV's death at about the same time--April 14--that the future Edward V and his household, which of course included Elizabeth's brother Anthony Woodville, received the news in Wales.

None of this would be of much importance in the grand scheme of things, perhaps, except that the unfounded notion that Elizabeth & Co. tried to conceal the king's death from Richard has made it into nonfiction as well as fiction, giving it a certain respectability and staying power. Elizabeth Jenkins in The Princes in the Tower twice states that no one told Richard of the king's death until Hastings broke the news, and Paul Murray Kendall, in whose eyes Elizabeth Woodville combines all of the worst qualifies of Imelda Marcos, Cruella de Vil, and Britney Spears, also writes that no official word ever came from Westminster to Richard. Bertram Fields in his book Royal Blood likewise accuses the queen and her kin of delay, and a quick surf on the Internet produces several Ricardian sites that make similar allegations. Especially with regard to the latter, it's disheartening to note how some--by no means all or even most--of those dedicated to reassessing Richard's reputation should be so cavalier about besmirching those of his contemporaries.

11 comments:

dorothy davies said...

There is, unfortunately, a tendency to besmear all and sundry in this time period. The accepted version is that Hastings wrote a hurried note, that a messenger brought the official news, that - well, in a time when it took five days to get anywhere with a message (and we complain when the Internet goes down!) anything could have happened. Elizabeth no doubt thought of her son first, he had at a young age suddenly become King and busied herself with a) grief and b) arrangements for him to come to London immediately. What seems to have happened is that Earl Rivers did not hurry to London, he took his time. He held a St Georges Day celebration and packed several carts full of possessions before setting out. Meantime Richard of Gloucester had set out the moment he got the news, head to foot in deep black mourning and all his men, too.
I think this particular happening needs to be viewed from all different angles and taking into account the agenda of each person, too. Hastings, if he didn't get himself into Gloucester's good books immediately, would be out of a job. Rivers had the welfare of his nephew to consider and did not rush to get him to London from the home he knew and was secure and familiar with. Gloucester had a duty to get to London because he was Lord Protector and distrusted the Woodvilles, for a variety of reasons. The meeting in Stony Stratford was a disaster waiting to happen, as two family heads came together in that pivotal moment. Who knows what was said over dinner that night which made Gloucester have them all arrested next morning? No one is saying. We can only use conjecture and supposition.
What we can do, though, is be sure that when we write of that time, we do not make foolish mistakes. One author avowed he had spent five years researching his book on Richard III and yet had him march up to Rivers before he had even set foot in Stony Stratford and had him arrested. Apart from the historical fact that this did not happen, it makes a better story to have the dinner, the drinking, the surprise arrest next morning. Methinks some writers don't research enough or see the potential for a good scene when it is presented to them!
So, consider each person in turn, look at their background, their attitude to each other and their agenda. Then decide who held back the news and who didn't. It makes for interesting thoughts. I know, I do it all the time with these people as I work my way through various books relating to them. (Current book, Edward Woodville, now there's a cypher for you!)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Thanks for stopping by, Dorothy! Is your book on Edward Woodville fiction or nonfiction? Either way, I'm looking forward to it!

Dorothy said...

Edward Woodville, fiction and non fiction. It is based on such facts as there are, but because the main audience is the Isle of Wight population and tourist trade, I am linking the story heavily toward the real reason for writing it. In 1488 Edward Woodville took some 440 men from the island to fight in Brittany, without the King's permission. One came back to tell the tale of what happened to the others. They have no memorial on the island. This book will be their memorial. It will be privately printed, by my own company, and distributed around the island and to anyone who is interested.
But, Edward Woodville hardly appears in the history books until after Edward IV dies, so I am having to create a role for him up to then, which is why it is part fiction, part fact. The facts come from a very old (103 years) article in an American journal and a French account of the campaign (which cost me a fortune to have translated).

Gabriele C. said...

...Elizabeth Woodville combines all of the worst qualifies of Imelda Marcos, Cruella de Vil, and Britney Spears...

She he has hundreds of pairs of shoes made from dalmatine skin, and then can't figure out which ones go on what foot? :)

Susan Higginbotham said...

Dorothy, I'm looking forward to seeing it once you do get it printed.

Gabriele: LOL!

Carla said...

Gabriele beat me to it. Curses! That'll teach me to figure out RSS...

Looks like an absence of evidence argument, doesn't it? The sources don't say who sent Richard the news, which can be interpreted to mean (a) there was nothing out of the ordinary so it wasn't worth recording, or (b) there was some sort of cover-up.

Who usually got the job of sending out letters like this? I'd have assumed it would be some high-ranking official, like the chamberlain, rather than the king's wife, if only because all kings have chamberlains but not all kings have wives.

I like your August scenario -imagine how different history would have been! But Richard would surely have had spies, no?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately my memory is a bit blurry, but wasn't the mass for the dead king held at York 2 days before he actually died? Together with the 5-days journey and, lets say, one day of preparation, the message of his death would have been dispatched 8 days before his death. That is rather remarkable, I think, and I haven't found it discussed anywhere yet. I wonder, is there any particular reason why you don't mention it here?

Sorry, can't recall the source, and now I will have to rummage all the books where I could have read it. Maybe it was Horrox?

Susan Higginbotham said...

Carla, I'm not sure who would get the job of sending bad news. I would think that Hastings as chamberlain would have been a perfectly logical choice to dispatch the messengers, though.

Anon, I should have mentioned the rumor, but I figured the post was getting too convoluted to begin with! Pollard mentions it at the beginning of Chapter 4 of Richard III and the Princes in the Tower (p. 90 in my paperback edition). I know I've seen it elsewhere, though--will have to dig a little.

Susan Higginbotham said...

Yup, Anon, it is Horrox, pp. 89-90 of Richard III: A Study in Service (paperback ed.) She states that it appears that Exeter also may have received a premature report of Edward IV's death. So the York rumor surely would have put Richard on alert for news of his brother--perhaps he had sent his own messenger to court to be informed of the status of his brother's health?

Dorothy said...

It is a fact that everyone had a spy network in place but it could also have been that Richard dismissed the rumours, for those are what they were at that time, of his brother's demise. On the other hand, the fact he rode out from Middleham in head to foot black and so did everyone with him probably meant he took at least part of it seriously.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info re Pollard and Horrox.
I've found this, in Charles Ross / Edward IV, p.414/5 :
... Edward suddenly fell ill about Eastertide (28.-30. March).
"The king's illness was serious enough for his death to be reported prematurely in York on April 6, and a mass was sung for his soul in the Minster the next day."
I guess it depends how "mass for his soul" is interpreted.

------
Oops. Just found this note, Rhoda Edwards "Itinerary...", p.1:
"April 1483
7 Monday - False news of King Edward IV's death reached York on 6th. Requiem mass was sung on 7th.
- York Civic Records, p. 71"

Hm. Can those records possibly be wrong regarding the nature of the mass, i.e. that it was not exactly a requiem?