The Illness of Henry IV

Lepers refused admission: Vincent_de_Beauvais_Miroir_historial, Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, folio 373r

When I started writing the volume about the second half of Henry IV’s life, my inclination was to entitle it The Leper King, only to discover there really was a leper king: Baldwin  IV of Jerusalem who died in 1185. And truly, it really wasn’t fair to Henry IV. Yes, he did have some kind of terrible skin disease, though his woes didn’t stop there. But if he really did have leprosy, how did he manage to lead a relatively “normal” existence—without being shunned by his contemporaries? No, apparently something else was going on. It’s nearly impossible to diagnose historical illnesses—especially from over 600 years ago. But historians have come up with some interesting theories.

One of the reasons leprosy achieved such purchase on the medieval mind was the timing of Henry’s first attack. According to many chroniclers, it happened the very night he executed Archbishop Scrope of York for his ill-fated rebellion. No English king had ever executed an archbishop before, and this was a terrible shock to his contemporaries. As the story goes, that very night, Henry woke up shrieking, “Traitors! Traitors! You have thrown fire over me!” His face was burning and he had broken out into a terrible rash—or pustules, or worse. Everyone thought it was God’s retribution for the murder of an archbishop. According to Peter Niven*, “Leprosy was the disease par excellence associated with God’s punishment of sinners”. Did this really happen the night of the execution? So many chroniclers mentioned it, that it would be incautious to dismiss the claim out of hand. Henry was bedridden for a week before he could continue his campaign against the rebel Henry Percy. But once he was back in the saddle, he allegedly carried on with renewed vigor. Temporarily, at least, he recovered—the first argument against leprosy.

There’s always the possibility that the medieval manifestation of leprosy differed from what we currently know as Hansen’s Disease. Nonetheless, the issue seems to have been decided when Henry’s tomb was opened in 1832. Although his remains quickly disintegrated upon exposure to the air, the investigators had enough time to determine that “his skin was intact, his features were not disfigured, and even the all-important nasal cartilage was undamaged” (Peter Niven, again).

It’s the other symptoms that confuse the issue. A little more than a year after his initial illness, Henry was struck with what he referred to as une grande accesse, and at the same time he complained of une maladie in his leg. Unable to ride, he was obliged to travel by barge and missed the first week of the 1406 parliament. Known as The Long Parliament, it lasted most of the year, and it’s thought that the many recesses had to do with his frequent inability to attend. Did he have a stroke? By all indications he retained clarity until his death. Could it be a blood clot in his leg? Historians just don’t know. Although his skin disease came and went for the rest of his life, it was the progressive weakness in his legs and associated attacks that took away his strength and reduced him to an invalid.

Some historians have suggested syphilis, which could account for many of the symptoms. However, the first recorded incidence of this disease hadn’t occurred in Europe before the end of the fifteenth century. Some have suggested psoriasis—possibly psoriatic psoriasis, which included joint inflammation and swelling. Three years after his first attack, Henry was struck down with a sudden seizure so violent that he lost consciousness for quite a few hours; for a while people thought he was dead. A few months later he made his will, which was usually done from the deathbed in this period—or prior to leaving for battle. Apparently he, too, thought he had reached the end. By then, he could barely walk or ride and was mostly carried in a litter or improvised wheelchair. Ultimately, Niven concluded that Henry could well have suffered from coronary heart disease or some sort of circulatory disorder. He suggested that rheumatic heart disease could easily explain his “growing incapacitation, his occasional dramatic collapses, and his relatively early death.” So, along with this conjecture, the skin disease was an unfortunate condition that had nothing to do with the major collapses that incapacitated him.

We certainly can’t ignore the effects of stress and—let’s face it—possible guilt over the usurpation and execution of an archbishop. Henry had more than his fair share of rebellions to deal with, and unless he was a man without a conscience, he must have had a lot of dead traitors weighing on his mind. I tried to count the numbers of executed men and lost track after about eighty. That’s enough to give most of us agita.

 

*McNiven, Peter, THE PROBLEM OF HENRY IV’S HEALTH, 1405-1413, The English Historical Review,  Vol. 100, no. 397 (Oct. 1985), pp. 747-772

 

Shakespeare’s Harry Hotspur

Dispute between Hotspur, Glendower, Mortimer and Worcester by Henry Fuseli – Wikiart

Harry Hotspur (aka Sir Henry Percy) was a major character in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1 who died at the hands of his nemesis, Prince Hal, at the battle of Shrewsbury. Unfortunately, we tend to forget that although Shakespeare was one of our greatest bards, he was not a historian and we can’t take his plays at face value. Yes, Hotspur was killed at Shrewsbury. But no, Hal was at the other end of the battlefield leading a flanking movement, still fighting with an arrow embedded in his face. I think that’s an even more dramatic story, but Shakespeare had other ideas (enter Falstaff).

But that’s not all. Hotspur was not Hal’s rival for Henry IV’s affection. In fact, Sir Henry Percy was the king’s age, not the son’s; he was actually born three years before Henry IV. He was knighted alongside Henry Bolingbroke by King Edward III in 1377. They traveled together to the great Tournament at Inglevert in 1390 (Hal would have been four years old at the time).

In reality, far from being the son Henry IV wished he had in contrast to his own wayward offspring,  Hotspur had been one of Hal’s early mentors. In the first few years after the usurpation, Hotspur had been made Constable of Chester, Flint, Conwy, and Caernarfon castles—all in addition to his other duties as Warden of the East Marches and Justice of North Wales. To say he had his hands full was an understatement! Hal was put under his tutelage at Chester, and I don’t think it would be totally out of line to suggest the prince might have experienced a bit of hero worship at this stage. He was only about sixteen, and Hotspur was the most famous knight of the age. He was indefatigable.

Even at Hal’s tender age, he was already being primed to take on his first responsibility in Wales. Unfortunately, it was unexpectedly thrust upon him at the end of 1402 when Hotspur grew annoyed at his lack of governmental support (and lack of payment) and resigned his command. Leaving young Hal in charge, he rode off, back to Northumberland. Just like that. How could the prince not feel abandoned?

The Welsh didn’t need much more incentive to rise up again, and they were soon attacking town after town, burning and pillaging. Prince Hal called up troops from nearby shires that owed the king service and went after them, holding his own. He was joined by his father a few months later and together they advanced into the heart of Wales. Unfortunately, their foray turned into a disaster and the English were forced to withdraw because of the terrible weather; the king was nearly killed when a storm blew his tent down on top of him. Henry was only saved because he wore his armor to bed. Their ignominious defeat was only made worse on discovering that the Percies had just won a tremendous battle at Homildon Hill, and came home loaded with hostages, among them the Scottish Earl of Douglas.

As depicted in Shakespeare, King Henry demanded that Hotspur turn over his prisoners and Harry angrily refused, precipitating the conflict that drove him to rebel. That much corresponds to history. In the play, there’s a scene where he conspired with Owain Glyndwr, Mortimer, and his uncle the earl of Worcester. This probably did not happen, though it’s possible some communication took place between them. The Welsh did not participate in the battle of Shrewsbury, though it’s possible they were creating a diversion by a very successful attack on Carmarthen in South Wales. Or the timing could have been a coincidence. Historians just don’t know, but since Glyndwr was occupied at Carmarthen, he couldn’t have been expected at Shrewsbury.

Death of Henry “Harry Hotspur” Percy, from a 1910 illustration by Richard Caton Woodville Jr. – Wikipedia

One can only imagine the shock and betrayal Hal must have felt to discover that his former friend and tutor had declared himself his enemy. I doubt he even knew trouble was brewing—it certainly caught his father by surprise. King Henry moved at his usual unpredictable speed and showed up with an army literally in the nick of time. Hotspur withdrew from besieging the town and prepared for battle.

Shrewsbury was a close-fought contest, and Hotspur was in the middle of the action. Shakespeare has him meeting Prince Hal seemingly alone, and they fight a duel where Hal slays his antagonist. And Falstaff takes credit for the killing after Hal walks away—apparently to get help. But of course, that’s all made up. The battle was total chaos and only the shouts of “Henry Percy dead!” turned the tide. His men panicked and fled, and later the trail of bodies stretched up to two miles away, with most of them fatally wounded in the back. No one knows precisely what happened to Hotspur, but after a search his body was found where the fighting was fiercest. Although the king supposedly shed a few tears over his corpse, he didn’t have any problem ordering that Hotspur’s naked body be propped up between two millstones so everyone knew he was truly dead.

While Hotspur fought valiantly, Prince Hal was leading a charge on the enemy flank; he wreaked havoc on the leaderless rearguard. It wasn’t until the fighting was over that Hal collapsed into the arms of his companions. In all probability he was unconscious for days—if not longer. Under almost any other circumstances his wound would have been fatal, for the arrowhead was embedded six inches into his skull next to his eye. It was only under the brilliant ministrations of John Bradmore, the most innovative surgeon in the kingdom, that Hal survived. It was probably a long time after the battle before he learned of Hotspur’s death.

You can learn more about the Battle of Shrewsbury and events leading up to it in my novel, THE USURPER KING.

Richard II’s London

The death of Wat Tyler in 1381While researching this novel I had the good fortune to stumble across the book “The Turbulent London of Richard II”—not, as it turns out, because of the content. It was way too specialized for me. But it came with the most awesome fold-out “sketch map of London in the time of the Peasant Revolt” that I photocopied and taped to my wall. It’s still there, three novels later. I spent hours scrutinizing it until I had a faithful understanding of England’s most important city, most of which was still tucked inside of the old Roman walls.

This was important, for at the time of the Peasants Revolt, the city officials relied on the wall to keep the rebels out. There were seven gates in the Roman wall: Ludgate (facing west), Newgate (where the prison was), Aldersgate (facing Smithfield), Cripplegate, Bishopsgate, Aldgate (east, facing Mile End), and the Postern Gate at the Tower of London (pedestrian only). The only other way into London was over the London Bridge, which had a drawbridge at the Southwark end. Of course, the mayor of London was dependent on the loyalty of his gatekeepers, and this ultimately failed him. Once Aldgate was opened and the insurgents came pouring into the city from the east, he had no choice but to lower the drawbridge and give passage to the Kent rebels.

Old London Bridge by Peter Jackson

London Bridge was a world all its own, populated by every conceivable business except taverns—for they had no cellars. The shops occupied the ground floor with their colorful signs nine feet above the pavement so a horse and rider could pass underneath. Every sign displayed an image representing a trade so it could be identified by anyone, literate or not. The bridge was twenty feet wide, lined on both sides by buildings cantilevered over the edge, supported by huge wooden struts. Each house only occupied four feet of the stone platform; which meant that only twelve feet was left to accommodate the road. Two and three stories high, the houses blocked out the sun like a tunnel, especially since many of the top floors were connected by an enclosed walkway. This would have been the conduit through which thousands and thousands of rebels pushed their way into the city. At this stage of the rebellion they were exhorted by their leaders to be well-behaved, though I can only imagine the trepidation felt by the hapless shopkeepers.

Interestingly, one of the rebels’ first targets was John of Gaunt’s great Savoy palace, which was the most elegant townhouse in all of London. It bordered the river, upstream on the way to Westminster along the Strand. The Strand was the London version of Millionaire’s Row: wealthy riverfront properties free of the stink and pollution of the city. To get to the Strand, you had to pass out through Ludgate then cross the Fleet, an open sewer polluted by the butchers and tanners dumping their refuse into the River Holborn—not to mention the prison sewage. The Fleet in turn poured its stinking offal into the Thames. And that’s not all: at certain docks along the river contained laystalls (think Dicken’s Puddle Dock, at Black Friars). This is where the night soil, or human excrement, was piled up, eventually to be taken away by five barges located downstream. You can just imagine the horrific stench.

Anyway, the rebels had to pass the famous Knights Hospitaller Temple along the way to the Savoy (they would be back—that’s where the lawyers lived). You also had Durham House (residence of the Bishop of Durham), York House (for the Bishop of York), the convent of the White Friars…you get the idea. I don’t think any of these palaces escaped the attention of the insurgents. Once they destroyed the Savoy—literally, for they accidentally blew it up with barrels of gunpowder, trapping many of the rebels in the cellar—they rampaged their way back into the city, spreading out in their efforts to eliminate the hated foreigners who competed for jobs and took food from their mouths. Oh, and to see how much plunder they could amass.

During the early phase of the Peasants’ Revolt, the king and his few nobles took refuge in the Tower of London, alleged to be invulnerable to attack. And it probably would be, though any fortress is only as strong as its human defenders. While Richard and party were at Mile End negotiating with the rebels on day two, the troublemakers remaining in the city forced their way in and seized the Archbishop of Canterbury and Treasurer Hales, decapitating them in the process. How? No one knows, but since the Tower defenders were commoners, one can only assume they were persuaded to join the cause.

Tower Water Gate: Wikipedia

After two days of rioting, the rebels finally agreed to meet King Richard at Smithfield, approached through Aldersgate. Just north of the city walls, Smithfield was an open space so large it would take about ten days for a yoke of oxen to plow it. Every August since the time of Henry I, the famous Bartholomew Fair was held there, bringing people from all over the country. Otherwise, Smithfield was most often used as a horse market, though sometimes it hosted sporting games, tournaments, and even executions. The Scottish rebel, William Wallace, was hanged, drawn, and quartered in this very spot, under the elms in the far northwest corner. This time it was the turn of Wat Tyler, who led his rowdy followers to Smithfield in an attempt to wrest more concessions from the king. Unfortunately for Wat, this would be the site of his untimely end, as well. And in the confusion, the rebels had nowhere to go but north toward Clerkenwell Fields, for the way out was blocked by the Roman wall to the south, the Fleet to the west, and the Priory of St. Bartholomew to the east. A brave and resilient King Richard led the way and the chastened rebels followed. Once they were brought under control, the Essex rebels scattered to the north, but the Kent contingent was led back through the city and over the London Bridge again; this time their behavior was impeccable (under pain of death).

By all accounts, a tremendous amount of damage was done to London during the Peasants’ Revolt, but of course it survived. One wonders why it didn’t go up in flames like the Great Fire of 1666, but perhaps the violence was directed more against people than structures?

RICHARD II’S MANY CHALLENGES

Coronation of Richard II from Jean de Wavrin Chroniques d’Angleterre BL Royal 14 E IV f. 10: Wikipedia

As the old biblical saying goes, “Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child”. The stresses on the country are easy to see, but no one seems to talk about how difficult it was to BE that child. Growing up without a (or at least, an active) father must have been compounded by all the expectations heaped upon that little head. In Richard’s case, he wasn’t even the first-born son. His elder brother, Edward, had died at the age of five just before his family’s return to England in 1371; Richard was not quite four. There were to be no more children, so the pressure was on.

Both Edward, the Black Prince and the ailing Edward III had real concerns about the succession. Primogeniture, as we know it, was not yet the law of the land. Young Richard had three uncles, and John of Gaunt, the next brother after Edward had already made plenty of enemies. So not only did the Black Prince on his deathbed oblige everyone to swear to support his son, King Edward is said to have put together an entail delineating the succession along male lines. He declared Richard the next heir and bypassed the descendants from his second son Lionel (already dead) through the daughter. According to historian Michael Bennett, because of Gaunt’s unpopularity the entail was kept secret from the general public. How many copies were made was unknown, for a badly burned original (from the Cotton Library fire of 1731) wasn’t even discovered until the 20th century. Surely all of Edward III’s descendants knew about it.

Richard was ten years old when he was crowned king. Apparently because so many people feared that Gaunt would seize the crown for himself, there was no regency. The business of government was conducted by a Continual Council, at least until the Peasants’ Revolt broke out in 1381. By then Richard was fourteen, and he suddenly found himself thrust into a position of leadership. Gaunt was in Scotland, the next uncle Edmund Langley was on his way to Portugal, and the youngest uncle Thomas of Woodstock was in Wales. The chancellor, Archbishop Sudbury, immediately resigned his post—not that he was fit for the job in the first place. There was no army to call on—only the soldiers manning the Tower of London. Richard had to face the marauding rebels on his own, and with a couple of false starts along the way, he ultimately manage to save London from their depredations. He had proved himself worthy of the name Plantagenet.

Froissart, Richard II meeting with the rebels of the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381: Wikipedia

One would think that his courage would have impressed his elders. Not a whit. Promises had been made along the way that couldn’t be kept, and Richard was to blame for making them—not that anybody else had a better idea. The king was dragged along as the government reasserted itself, holding judgement on the rebels who felt themselves betrayed. Many ringleaders were hanged and the king was held responsible. His moment of glory was fleeting and now he was on the defensive.

Richard kept his few friends and advisors close, making them the target of jealous and unscrupulous magnates. The most unscrupulous of all was Richard’s uncle Thomas of Woodstock, made Duke of Gloucester in 1385. The new title—which he felt he deserved—did nothing to counteract his conviction that the king was badly advised. As soon as John of Gaunt left the country to pursue the crown of Castile, Gloucester went on the offensive. Gathering together a powerful faction led by himself, the Earl of Arundel, and the Earl of Warwick, Gloucester “appealed” (accused) Richard’s favorites, initiating a legal procedure to drive them from the king’s presence. (Even he couldn’t attack the king directly.) The trio became known as the Lords Appellant, and were soon joined by Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray. Gaining steam, their scheme was extravagantly successful, culminating in the Merciless Parliament of 1388. By the time the dust settled, eight of Richard’s friends and favorites had been put to death, three had fled the country, and over forty others had been ejected from court. The king was all alone, and friendless. Except for his queen.

Nonetheless, Richard trusted in his special eminence. He was an anointed king, after all, and nobody could take that from him. After licking his wounds for a year, he came back stronger and wiser, declaring his majority and taking his place back at the head of the government. The Lords Appellant could do nothing against him, and they had pretty much lost interest anyway. Their job was done.

For the next seven years, England was quiet and prosperous. As professor Hutchison would say, political executioners were unemployed. But suddenly, without warning, Richard launched a brutal revenge against the Lords Appellant, throwing his government into a tailspin. What happened? Why ruin a good thing? Historians have been baffled ever since. Perhaps the death of his queen removed any restraint over his bad tendencies. Some think the king went insane; others wondered if he was planning his revenge all along and just waited for the right moment. It’s possible that the Duke of Gloucester was fomenting trouble again. He got his “just desserts”, and it’s possible that Richard would have gotten away with his private retribution except that he didn’t stop there.

Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester
Arrest of the Duke of Gloucester BL, Harley 4380, f. 181v Creative Commons License

For the last three years of his reign, King Richard exhibited an incredible paranoia, fearing retaliation at any moment and practically holding the whole populace responsible for his earlier humiliation. This period of his reign is usually called his Tyranny. He collected over 600 Cheshire archers as his personal bodyguard (who terrorized the country wherever they went). He imposed fines on whole communities and slapped them with “blank charters” to be filled in at his discretion if they caused any trouble. He initiated forced loans to pay for his upcoming campaign to Ireland (though he was not the first nor the last king to do so). Once he exiled Henry Bolingbroke and took possession of the Lancaster endowments, he went too far. For the second time in his life Richard found himself alone and abandoned—with the exception of a handful of supporters. This time there would be no coming back. The king’s experiment with absolute monarchy was a failure, not to be revived until Henry VIII applied it to “perfection”.

King Richard II’s Court

Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray Earl Marshal
Richard II makes Thomas Mowbray the Earl Marshal, BL Cotton MS Nero D VI, f.85r.

It seems that at some point in every reign, political factions grew up around the king. Sometimes they were minor annoyances and could be ignored. Often they turned toxic—especially when a baron started to throw his weight around. Occasionally the overmighty baron was a member of the royal family, as in the case of Richard II, and he was able to attract powerful friends. As the great historian Kenneth McFarlane put it*: “The nuisance of the overmighty subject was in fact a feature of the rule of weaklings and vanished with the accession of those who had the personal authority to deal with it…To Edward III, Henry V, and Henry VIII the problem did not exist; to Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, it was insoluble.” This seems harsh, but I can’t argue with it. The court was more dangerous to King Richard than it was to his subjects.

Of course, during the first ten years of Richard II’s reign the country had to deal with his minority; that didn’t help matters. There was no regent—only a continual council. How can a testy teenager gain control over his opinionated uncles? During the early part of his reign, Richard mistakenly saw John of Gaunt as his primary antagonist—actually, Gaunt had managed to rub almost everybody the wrong way until he gained some humility after his debacle in Spain. Once Gaunt had left the country to chase his crown of Castile, his younger brother the Duke of Gloucester stepped forward, and Richard found himself challenged by an even more unscrupulous opponent. This is when the real trouble began.

Up until then, King Richard was content to surround himself with a tight-knight group of friends and confidants. That in itself might not have rankled, except that he shut himself away from those who considered themselves his proper advisors. The young Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford emerged as the most obvious scapegoat; Richard was very attached to him and it was rumored there might have been some unsavory behavior, reminiscent of Edward II. Also, that commoner Sir Simon Burley, Richard’s chamberlain, kept a firm control over access to the king’s inner chambers. The overmighty barons felt excluded. Something had to be done.

So in these critical first ten years, the faction against the king gained ground, and those faithful to Richard remained a pitiful minority. The Duke of Gloucester joined forces with the irascible Earl of Arundel and the Earl of Warwick; soon they gathered their retainers together and marched on London. Although they insisted that Richard get rid of his bad advisors, the king demurred while Robert de Vere attempted to raise an army to defend him. This perceived betrayal was enough to persuade Henry Bolingbroke and Thomas Mowbray to join the Lords Appellant, as they all became known.

The Lords Appellant before King Richard II
Arundel, Gloucester, Nottingham, Derby, and Warwick, Before the King Source: Wikimedia

At the time, the king had no standing army; he was totally dependent on his nobles to do his fighting for him. Who would have been on his side? Already Robert de Vere’s army had surrendered almost without a fight; the Earl of Oxford had no experience in warfare. The Duke of York, Richard’s other uncle, was notoriously ineffectual and could only offer moral support. John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, was in Spain. That’s it for the Dukes; there were only three—all Richard’s uncles. How about the earls? Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland was far in the north; he didn’t get involved. John Holland, Earl of Kent and Richard’s half-brother, was with Gaunt in Spain. Roger Mortimer, Earl of March was in Ireland. Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, was on the run. The last four earls were Appellants. That’s it. Richard was alone.

After making short work of de Vere, the Appellants closed in on Richard who had taken refuge in the Tower. There was no way out; the king was their prisoner. It was their moment of triumph and they didn’t hesitate to threaten his crown. What could he do? Richard was forced to bend to their will, sacrificing all his supporters. Burley was executed, along with at least eight others, including Chief Justice Tresilian and ex-mayor Nicholas Brembre. Queen Anne begged on her knees for Gloucester to spare Burley, but to no avail. Servants and knights of the chamber were imprisoned or exiled. The Ex-Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, was the lucky one. He found refuge on the Continent and was joined by Robert de Vere. By the time Richard’s government had been purged, the king had no one to turn to except his wife.

Execution of Robert Tresilian
Execution of Robert Tresilian from Jean Froissart’s Chroniques (Wikimedia)

The desolate King Richard spent a year licking his wounds before daring to step forward. But step forward he did. After all, he was twenty-two, and no one could deny it was time to declare his majority. By then, the Lords Appellant had lost interest in governing. After all, they had achieved their goal and their attention was demanded elsewhere. The transition to Richard’s full control was smooth and effortless, and the king had learned his lesson—or so it seemed. For the next seven years, England experienced a rare stretch of peace and prosperity.

But it was not destined to last. Richard had learned an even better lesson from the Lords Appellant. He determined that never again would he find himself alone and defenseless. It was time to retain some men of his own, and he started with the Cheshire Archers. Oh, dear. It was not going to end well…

On to THE KING’S RETRUBITION.

*McFarlane, K.B., THE NOBILITY OF LATER MEDIEVAL ENGLAND, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1973, p.283.

 

Book Review: John of Gaunt by Sydney Armitage-Smith

John of GauntJohn of Gaunt is an enigmatic figure to most of us. You can’t help but remember his famous speech in Shakespeare’s Richard II, using a play of words with his name. But by then he was at death’s door—weak and pitiful. We know he was hated by the city of London and lost his fabulous Savoy Palace, burned to the ground during the Peasants’ Revolt. He has come down to us as an arrogant, unyielding, aristocratic noble, but with the help of this biography we get to see the subtler side of Gaunt. He seems to have started out as all those things we remember, but throughout his career he became a successful and valued statesman, ambassador and—most importantly—protector of the king’s prerogative. Although many assumed that he had designs on the throne for himself, in reality it would have been against his honor to usurp the king, no matter how helpless, deserving, or ungrateful Richard may have seemed. He had his own crown to chase down—Castile—and though his efforts proved useless, he did manage to marry off two of his daughters to Spanish heirs who begat lines of kings that lasted hundreds of years. If he had been as good a general as he was a negotiator, perhaps history would have been kinder to his memory.

Here’s a good representation of Gaunt’s proficiency (during the Peasants’ Revolt while he was in Scotland): “John of Gaunt was a true Plantagenet; no sign of fear betrayed his secret to the Scottish envoys. While his couriers were riding with orders to the constables of his castles in Yorkshire and on the Welsh marches to garrison them for a siege and admit no one without letters under his seal, the Duke quietly went on with the negotiations, and by the offer of liberal terms persuaded the Scots to prolong the truce. Not till the compact was sealed did the Scots learn that they had lost the golden opportunity of attacking England in the hour of weakness.”

Richard, who disliked and feared the power of his uncle, encouraged him to go and claim his crown in Castle—only to discover that once the Duke was gone, he had lost his only protector. The Lords Appellant, intent on removing the king’s advisors, stripped Richard of all his powers while Gaunt was overseas. Richard learned his lesson well, and once he was in control again, recalled his uncle and showered him with favors. By then Gaunt had achieved the height of respectability and for the rest of his life he championed the king and strove to secure the future of his heirs. The author gives us a well-rounded depiction of this oft-maligned Duke, and I came to understand his disappointments as well as his accomplishments. I suspect he would have disapproved of his son’s usurpation of the throne, but of course Richard waited until he died to commence his scheme of depriving Henry of Gaunt’s vast patrimony. This was a well-written biography and quite useful to understanding the period.

 

CHIVALRY IN THE AGE OF RICHARD II

The tournament of Saint-Inglevert, in the Harley Froissart, Harley MS 4379, f. 43r, British Library Creative Commons license

Aside from a slight digression to Scotland in order to prove his manhood, Richard II was not interested in warfare. But there’s no getting away from the fact that the Age of Chivalry had reached its apex by the end of the fourteenth century. When we think of knights armored from head to foot in articulated plate with splendid crests atop their helmets and gay caparisons flowing from their stallions, this is the period that comes to mind. Europe may have experienced a brief hiatus in warfare, but the knights gave themselves plenty of opportunity to excel in arms: the tournament.

I would say the most famous tournament of all time were the Jousts of St. Inglevert, held in 1390 and described in detail by Jean Froissart. Three famous French knights, Jean Boucicaut (soon to be marshal of France), Renaud de Roya, and the lord de Sempy challenged one and all to meet them at St. Inglevert, a religious house between Boulogne on the sea and Calais. This was to be a month-long event, and all of Christendom were keen to attend.

The French knights erected three rich vermilion-colored pavilions. Each was hung with two shields, emblazoned with their arms: one shield represented the “joust of peace”, requiring blunt lances, and the other, the “joust of war” requiring sharpened steel lances. Each challenger (or his squire) was to ride up and touch his shield of preference with a special wand, and the resident herald would record his name, country, and family.

King Richard II did not attend; he was still recovering from the trauma of the Merciless Parliament of 1388. Henry Bolingbroke, on the other hand, led a solid contingent of over one hundred knights and squires, including John Holland, earl of Huntingdon (the king’s half-brother), Thomas Mowbray, the Earl Marshal, John Beaufort, Thomas Swynford, Harry (Hotspur) Percy and his uncle Thomas Percy.

According to Froissart: “Sir John Holland was the first who sent his squire to touch the war-target of Sir Boucicaut, who instantly issued from his pavilion completely armed. Having mounted his horse, and grasped his spear, which was stiff and well steeled, they took their distances. When the two knights had for a short time eyed each other, they spurred their horses and met full gallop with such force that Sir Boucicaut pierced the shield of the Earl of Huntingdon, and the point of his lance slipped along his arm, but without wounding him. The two knights, having passed, continued their gallop to the end of the list. This course was much praised. At the second course, they hit each other slightly, but no harm was done; and their horses refused to complete the third. The earl of Huntingdon, who wished to continue the tilt, and was heated, returned to his place, expecting that sir Boucicaut would call for his lance; but he did not, and showed plainly he would not that day tilt more with the earl.

Sir John Holland, seeing this, sent his squire to touch the war-target of the lord de Sempy. This knight, who was waiting for the combat, sallied out from his pavilion, and took his lance and shield. When the earl saw he was ready, he violently spurred his horse, as did the lord de Sempy. They couched their lances, and pointed them at each other. At the onset, their horses crossed; notwithstanding which, they met; but by this crossing, which was blamed, the earl was unhelmed. He returned to his people, who soon re-helmed him; and, having resumed their lances, they met full gallop, and hit each other with such force in the middle of their shields, that they would have been unhorsed had they not kept tight seats by the pressure of their legs against the horses’ sides. They went to the proper places, where they refreshed themselves and took breath.”

After Holland chose the shield of war, no one else chose the shield of peace for fear of being declared coward. There were lots of sparks flying from helmets, shattered lances, and pierced targets. Most knights ran up to 5 courses. All told, 137 courses were run during the month and all three French challengers survived the ordeal, to their everlasting glory (somewhat the worse for wear but intact). At times they needed a few days to heal from wounds, whereupon their surviving companions covered for them. Henry Bolingbroke was said to have made a spectacular showing and Boucicaut later invited him to accompany him to two crusades.

Not to be outdone, King Richard II hosted another famous tournament at Smithfield in October of the same year. This was the same location where he confronted Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt nine years previously. Sixty fully-armored knights paraded through the streets from the Tower, down Cheapside to Smithfield, led by sixty ladies mounted on palfreys, richly ornamented and dressed. The ladies led their knights by a silver chain, and all were accompanied by minstrels and trumpets. The king and queen attended, accompanied by dukes, counts, and lords, and after a full day’s jousting entertained their guests with a magnificent banquet. The jousting went on for five days, then the court moved on to Windsor castle.

Solemn_Joust_on_London_Bridge tapestry by Richard Beavis, Wikipedia

One of the more interesting jousts was actually held on London Bridge. Many Scots and English participated in the tournament, but the main event was a personal challenge between the English Ambassador to Scotland, Lord Wells, and Sir David de Lindsay, a Scottish knight; they engaged to  joust a l’outrance, or to the death. Held before King Richard, the knights ran two courses without incident, and on the third pass Lord Wells was unhorsed. They proceeded to fight on foot and again Sir David held the advantage. But just as the Scot was ready to deliver the killing blow he relented and helped Lord Wells to his feet, gaining the approval of the crowd.

The most famous trial by combat in the fourteenth century was between Henry of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) and Sir Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk. Unfortunately, the combat never took place; the King stopped it at the last minute. But the ceremony and protocol were all there; we get a colorful description in the Chronicque de la Traison et Mort de Richart Deux Roy Dengleterre (the author was probably an eye-witness).

According to la Traison, “The lists were to be sixty paces long and forty wide; the barriers seven feet high. The sergeants-at-arms were not to let the people approach within four feet of the lists… the penalty for entering the lists, or making any noise, so that one party might take advantage of the other, was the loss of life or limb, and also of their castles, at the pleasure of the King.” This was serious stuff! Again, according to la Traison, “The weapons allowed by the marshal and constable were the “Glaive”, long sword, short sword, and dagger. The long sword was straight, and called by the French “estoc”, whence estocade, a thrust.”

The King ordered that they take away the pavilions and “let go the chargers, and that each should perform his duty”. Apparently Bolingbroke first advanced a few paces when the King threw his threw his staff (warder) into the list, crying, “Ho! Ho!” For the King to interfere in the duel was not unheard of, though it seems that the crowd was bitterly disappointed to be denied their entertainment; never mind that the fight was to the death. Apparently there were no other amusements on the agenda. The contestants were equally skilled in tournament fighting, and by no means was the result a foregone conclusion. The king withdrew with his council—including Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt—and discussed the matter for two hours while the attendees waited. Finally it was announced that Bolingbroke was to be exiled for ten years and Mowbray for life. From most accounts, the crowd was incensed at Bolingbroke’s treatment; after all, he had done nothing wrong. Few seemed to object to Mowbray’s fate; was he guilty until proven innocent? Nonetheless, everybody went home unhappy, not least of all the main contestants.

Trial by combat seems to have died out by the 15th century, and I haven’t found anything quite as dramatic as this contest. The amount of preparation for such a non-event was staggering. If you happened to be versed in medieval French, you can learn more about tournament ceremonies in this book, reproduced in Google Books: “Ceremonies des gages de batailles selon les constitutions du bon roi Philippe de France”.

Further reading: ROYAL JOUSTS AT THE END OF THE FOURTEENTH CENTURY by Steven Muhlberger, Freelance Academy Press, Wheaton IL, 2012

Scandal in the House of York! Guest Post by Anne O’Brien

The piety of Cecily Neville was much praised during her life time, particularly in her later years.  Her pride was also widely acknowledged.  Proud Cis has become a recognisable epithet.  Yet during her lifetime scandal raised its ugly head.  When her husband was commanding the English forces in France and Cecily was based in Rouen, Cecily is said to have had an affair with a common archer, from her husband’s company, called Blaybourne.  The result of this affair was the birth of an illegitimate son Edward, claimed to be the legitimate son of Richard Duke of York, and later to become King Edward IV.

This was, of course. one of the major aspects of Cecily’s life that I needed to address in The Queen’s Rival.  No life of Cecily Neville, even in novel form, would be complete without it.

There is much proof offered for such a scandal.

– Given his date of birth, the child Edward must have been conceived between mid July and late August in 1441 when the Duke of York was known to be campaigning and so absent from Rouen.  Logistically he could not be the father of Edward.

– Edward was baptised quickly and quietly, most probably in the chapel in Rouen Castle.  This was in comparison with their second son Edmund who was given a very public baptism in Rouen cathedral.  Was this an attempt not to draw attention to the birth of Edward?  There was never any question of Edmund’s legitimacy.

– Edward looked nothing like his father the Duke of York who is said to have been fairly slight of stature and dark haired.  Edward was well over six feet in height with fair hair.

– Mancini, writing in 1483 when Richard III took the throne, put forward the argument that Cecily, in a fit of fury at the marriage of her son King Edward with Elizabeth Woodville, had claimed openly that her son Edward was not the son of Richard of York and should not therefore be King since illegitimacy would bar him from the throne.  It is claimed that Cecily wished her son George of Clarence to become King instead.

Like all politically motivated scandals, it is very plausible.  Was the proud and pious Cecily guilty of adultery?

The following casts doubt on the scandal.

– Richard of York, on campaign, was rarely more than a day’s journey from Cecily in Rouen.  Did he ever return to visit her, mid-campaign?  It was never recorded, but then did it need to be?

– Was Edward of Rouen a full term pregnancy?  There is no evidence whether it was or was not.  It the child was born prematurely, or indeed late, it may be that Cecily and Richard had been reunited to aid the conception.

– There were no doubts raised of Edward’s legitimacy immediately after his birth.  York never doubted that the boy was legitimate, and was immediately planning a marriage for him to Madeleine, daughter of the King of France.  No suggestion of scandal here.

– A fast baptism without the panoply of Edmund’s?  If the child was premature, there were possibly fears for his health.  Cecily’s previous son Henry had  died as a babe in arms.  With this in mind it may have been thought politic to name the child quickly.  There was no such urgency  with  Edmund.

– Edward may not have looked like his father, but there was certainly a resemblance to King Edward III, his great grandfather who was tall and fair.

Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville: Wikipedia

– Would Cecily have attacked her own virtue, and the honour of her husband in this public manner?  If she wished to hurt her son, would she be so crass in using this weapon which would weaken the whole new edifice of the royal House of York.  She certainly objected to the marriage to Elizabeth Woodville on the grounds that she was a widow and it was a wasted opportunity to make a valuable alliance with a European country.  There is no evidence that Cecily preferred George of Clarence as King.  In fact she did much to heal the rift between Clarence and Edward.

Whatever the truth of it, this scandalous rumour became a highly useful political weapon in the hands of the Earl of Warwick.  His plan was ultimately to disinherit Edward and replace him with his brother George of Clarence, now wed to Warwick’s daughter Isabel.  The rumour was also used again at a later date to disinherit the two young sons of Edward IV when Richard III took the throne.  It really was an extremely valuable piece of scandal for whoever might wish to cause harm to the House of York.

Ultimately, what do I think?  Cecily would have been a young woman, abandoned in Rouen while her husband went off campaigning.  Was she lonely?  Did Blaybourne catch her wayward eye?  Who is to say?

But I really don’t see the proud and pious Cecily Neville being guilty of scandal with an archer in her husband’s household.

England, 1459.

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.

Amazon UKhttps://www.amazon.co.uk/Queens-Rival-Anne-OBrien/dp/0008225532
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Meet Anne O’Brien

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history.

Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

 

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TOSTIG AND HAROLD’S SIBLING RIVALRY

Battle of Stamford Bridge
Battle of Stamford Bridge: Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

To this day, more than 950 years after the Norman Conquest, many of us are still fascinated by the causes of this pivotal event—and I am one of them. If Harold Godwineson hadn’t been 260 miles away fighting his brother when Duke William landed at Pevensey, things might have gone differently. So where does Tostig come into this? From outlawry to Stamford Bridge, Tostig was on the wrong side of the law. In his last battle, he seems to have been second in command after Harald Hardrada and has been branded as a traitor ever since.

It was thought by many that Tostig himself persuaded Hardrada to invade, thus forcing King Harold to rush north and defend his kingdom against the Vikings. However, this conclusion is by no means certain; nobody was tracing Tostig’s movements in the early part of 1066. It’s entirely possible that the Norwegian King planned the invasion on his own, and Tostig merely fell in with his army when the time came. There is no doubt that Hardrada was the leader of the Viking invasion. What exactly Tostig thought to accomplish is uncertain. Perhaps he only wanted his old earldom back. Or, he might have bargained to rule his old earldom as sub-king to Harald. Maybe he hoped Hardrada would get killed and he could rule in his stead, unlikely though that sounds.

But why was Tostig fighting against his brother, anyway? This was the question that inspired me to write THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY. Why was he outlawed? How could Harold allow his brother to go off in such a rage that he would come back with an invading army? Surely Tostig had his reasons; such a devastating turn of events could have not come about arbitrarily.

In a situation like this, matters usually deteriorate over the course of time. Harold and Tostig were only a couple of years apart. Was there rivalry from their boyhood? Did Tostig feel left out? When Tostig became Earl of Northumbria, his brother had already been Earl (first of East Anglia and then of Wessex) for 10 years. What did Tostig do all that time? There was no catching up; by 1055 Harold was practically the “right hand” of King Edward, and frequently took on responsibilities that the king didn’t want to be bothered with. When Tostig helped his brother during the Welsh campaign of 1063, what was his reward? Harold was lauded as a great warrior because of this campaign; Tostig barely received mention, and may well have emptied his coffers to help pay for it. Could this have contributed to the stress between them?

The real trouble started in 1065; up until then Tostig had ruled Northumbria for 10 years without any major disturbance. However, after the Welsh campaign he found himself obliged to impose new taxes on this previously undertaxed earldom. Some have said that Tostig needed to pay for the campaign. Other historians suggested he was urged to do so by Harold, acting in concert with the king who wanted to bring the north more in line with his southern provinces. There were some political assassinations that might have contributed to the unrest, but most historians agree that taxation issues pushed the troublesome thegns to revolt.

King Edward the Confessor

And what a revolt it was! Tostig was in the south hunting with King Edward when thegns from all over Yorkshire and Northumberland gathered in York and attacked the Earl’s housecarls, catching them totally unprepared. Although Tostig’s 200+ troops tried to fight back, they were unable to mount an organized defense and were killed almost to a man. The rampaging rebels broke into the armory, destroyed Tostig’s manors, and raided the treasury, making off with all the carefully gathered taxes.

Next on the agenda was to call a witan and elect a new Earl: Morcar, younger son of Earl Aelfgar of Mercia—who just happened to be standing by. This was a totally illegal move and the rebels knew it, so they proceeded to rampage their way south and force the issue with the king. Enter Harold, who was delegated to mediate for Tostig. King Edward and Tostig had every reason to believe Harold would get what they wanted, so they were more than horrified when their negotiator came back with rebels in tow. Morcar and his supporters didn’t trust Harold and insisted that the king be confronted personally with all their demands. A second round of negotiations ensued, and Harold was still unable to budge the rampaging Northumbrians. They declared that Tostig had to go and that Morcar be officially declared Earl, or else they would continue their depredations into East Anglia.

Tostig went into a rage and accused Harold of fomenting the rebellion himself. In self-defense, Harold offered his sworn oath that he was not responsible but Tostig was having none of it. Edward wanted to raise the fyrd and teach his errant subjects a lesson, but the late season and poor support for Tostig’s cause were enough to foil the king’s empty threats. Edward eventually backed down and gave into the rebel demands, though the loss of royal prestige was a blow the king never recovered from. Just over a month later, King Edward was dead.

Tostig left the country voluntarily enough, loaded with gifts from the king but still swearing revenge against his brother. Apparently Harold washed his hands of the whole situation, for he is not recorded attempting to offer Tostig any compensation until the battle of Stamford Bridge. Even after he became king, Harold supported the wily sons of Aelfgar (his former rivals) and even married their sister to prove that Tostig was not coming back. Tostig may have found this doubly insulting. By the time they faced each other on the battlefield, Harold is said to have offered back the earldom if Tostig would lay down his arms. When Tostig asked what Harold was prepared to offer Hardrada, we hear the famous line “Seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.” At this response, Tostig righteously refused his brother’s offer. (I still find this episode a little implausible; it came from Snorri Sturluson, whose account may be somewhat apocryphal.)

So his sense of betrayal was surely a driving force for Tostig’s attempted return. But there is another factor to remember: there were plenty of precedents for an Earl to rampage his way back into favor. Earl Godwine did it in 1052, and Harold himself was part of that reunion; his bloody encounter at Porlock left behind 30 dead thegns and countless others. Even Aelfgar, Morcar’s father, wreaked havoc on two occasions (the first causing the destruction of Hereford in 1055); both times he was restored to his earldom. So Tostig was just following suit; of course, his allies were a bit more powerful than Aelfgar’s!

Life in Eleventh Century Britain: The Fyrd and the Housecarls

Anglo-Saxon Shield Wall

Before the Normans brought over their own version of feudalism, the Anglo-Saxons had a different way of calling up an army in need of defense. At the top of the scale were the Housecarls, the closest thing to a paid, standing army (or household troops) the leader could summon. They were loyal to their employer—the king or a great earl—and were usually composed of Danish or English professional soldiers. Some were landowners; it’s possible that some lived in barracks. When King Harold Godwineson unexpectedly had to go north to stop Harold Hardrada in September 1066, the Housecarls were the only warriors he could initially call upon.

Patterned after the Jomsvikings of Denmark (founded by King Harold, father of Swein Forkbeard), Housecarls are first mentioned in relation to King Canute—probably in 1018—and ceased to exist as an organization after the Battle of Hastings. It is believed they were in essence a military guild, with a body of regulations and the ability to call up a gemot or huskarlesteffne in the king’s presence to settle disputes or punish a transgressor.

Highly trained warriors, the Housecarls mostly fought on foot although it is more than possible that they were perfectly capable of fighting on horseback. Snorri Sturluson tells us in Heimskringla that Harold’s mounted troops attacked the disorganized Norwegians in the early phase of the Stamfordbridge battle. They would not have attacked head-on like we picture in the 14th century battles; rather they would veer past the enemy and launch javelins into their foes’ ranks, much like the Normans did at Hastings. Then they would dismount and finish the battle on foot. During the Battle of Hastings, Harold most likely spread out his Housecarls along the shield wall to support the less experienced fyrd; they were the only warriors that returned with him after Stamfordbridge, and by then their ranks had been sorely thinned. The Housecarls would have been a formidable sight; as seen in the Bayeux Tapestry, they could take down both rider and horse with one sweep of their awesome Danish axe. It was a testament to their—and the Anglo Saxon—valor that it took a whole day for William’s well-armed force to break their ranks.

Beneath the Housecarls, the fyrd was drawn from the general population of England. They responded to territorial obligations and were roughly divided into two categories, sometimes known as the select fyrd and the great fyrd. The select fyrd were usually better trained, and were generally composed of thegns, ceorls or upper peasantry. They were assigned on the basis of the 5-hide system throughout southern England (in the Danelaw, the land was assessed in carucates, but the same system is thought to be utilized). By the late Anglo-Saxon period, the hide was not a geographic unit of measure; in essence it was used to determine the amount of service owed to the king. I would theorize it had more to do with a density of population rather than its original definition (equivalent to the amount of land required to feed a peasant family). One lord’s manor could contain several 5-hide units, or perhaps several small estates would be stitched together to create one 5-hide unit. The bigger towns had the most hides even though they covered a small area. So for instance Cambridge was assessed at 100 hides; so was Colchester and Shrewsbury. Each would be obliged to produce 20 warriors.

The responsibility of the 5-hide unit was three-fold: military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. For their military obligation, each unit was required to produce one soldier and pay him for two months’ service (20 shillings) if called up by the king. This soldier was usually the same person whenever called up, so this is why he would probably be better trained and equipped than the ordinary fyrdman. Nonetheless, there was no annual training period for the select fyrd, and they were only called up in time of war; years could go by without going into service.

The most important distinction between the two categories of fyrd was that the select fyrd was expected to travel and serve for up to two months. The great fyrd, on the other hand, was called up for strictly local defense. The key difference is that the great fyrd must be able to return home at night; if the king required them to travel, he must pay them a wage. Because they were normally unpaid, they were not expected to come armed with much more than whatever came to hand: clubs, stones tied to sticks, farm utensils, etc. In many cases, they could very well supplement the better-armed select fyrd, which is perhaps what we saw at Hastings.

When taken as a whole, this system seems to have been very well organized. But it did not survive the Norman Conquest. Not all historians are in agreement about this distant era, and I used “Anglo-Saxon Military Instititions” by C.Warren Hollister as my primary source.