Thomas More the historian?

Such a waste of time and energy on the part of Professor Tim Thornton, who has captured media attention claiming that Thomas More wrote respectable history because (seriously) he has identified a real-life family bearing the name of one of More’s characters.
     This leads me to inject a dose of reality into the matter of historical accuracy in Thomas More’s tale of Richard III.
     This is not to blame Thomas More for experimenting privately with creative writing: besides, his text repeatedly asserts that its contents have been gleaned from unnamed

others. The key point is that More himself never presented this literary effusion as history, despite the title of ‘History’ made up by his acolytes for its posthumous publication.
     Indeed, its distance from the factual record is easily judged by the historical gaffes that occur from the outset. This literary tour de force is suffused with howlers, misidentifications, personal prejudices, 16th-century tropes, and imaginary set-piece scenes and speeches. It was never finished and clearly never prepared for public consumption.
     The science of history has been greatly misguided because historians in earlier centuries latched on to it in the same way that palaeoanthropologists latched on to the Piltdown Man hoax, because it vindicated their a priori theories.
     A more germane question to consider is why More never once mentioned it in his copious written archive. Several versions survive, some in Latin, some in English, and he was still tinkering with them some forty years after the events they described. But he nowhere offered any purpose or explanation for writing it. The work stands isolated. Every assessment of it, and deduction from it, is speculative.
     Why should he not invent an imaginary cast of characters for an imaginary murder, complete with an imaginary priest who disinterred and reinterred the victims … and why not mischievously borrow names of people he encountered (and perhaps disdained) in everyday life? It’s not as if it was meant for publication! There are many echoes of real-life names in Shakespeare’s characters, but we don’t view them as historical portraits.
     Thomas More had many strings to his bow. Academics in the sphere of literature offer different, well informed opinions on More’s telling of the Richard III story, seeing it embedded within the context of other inventive ideas he enjoyed exploring such as those in Utopia.
     In the 1550s, with the exciting new medium of printing, people were naturally credulous when they saw words printed on paper attributed to a famous man. But it wasn’t long before the scholarly antiquaries at the turn of the century insisted on proof before accepting tales from the likes of More and Morton, whose reputations by then were anything but sanctified. If only historians had followed this sensible lead, instead of striving to squeeze More’s unfinished proto-drama into the straitjacket of a supposed historical account. This subject is in serious need of Mr Occam and his Razor.


Surviving Regalia of King Richard III’s and Queen Anne’s Coronation

The Ampulla and Coronation Spoon

Perhaps because they are not immediately recognizable as such, these are the oldest items in the coronation regalia and the only two that escaped the systematic destruction of royal regalia and crown jewels after the execution of Charles I. The holy oil (chrism) is poured from the beak of the golden eagle into the spoon and applied to the monarch’s head, breast and palms.

The Coronation Spoon is first recorded in 1349 as preserved among St Edward’s Regalia in Westminster Abbey. Already at this date it is described as a spoon of ‘antique forme’. Stylistically it seems to relate to the 12th century and was possibly supplied to Henry II or Richard I. It is therefore a remarkable survival – the only piece of royal goldsmiths’

work to survive from that century. The small pearls were added to its decoration by King Charles II.

It is unclear from the 1349 inventory whether the spoon at this date was part of the chapel plate. Its length, and the division of the bowl into two lobes, suggest that it always had a ceremonial purpose, and its presence among the regalia means that it has always been associated with coronations. One suggestion is that the divided bowl was designed in this fashion so that the archbishop might dip two fingertips into the holy oil. Hence it may well have been with this spoon that Richard and Anne were anointed in 1483. 

The Ampulla is more difficult to date, its antiquity being less obvious at first sight since it has been subjected to frequent redecoration. Its feathering is characteristic 17th-century work, but when the head is removed the comparatively crude threading of the screw at the neck shows that the vessel is far older, and could have been the golden eagle used for the first time at the coronation of Henry IV in 1399. If so, it was this Ampulla which Richard III conveyed to Westminster Abbey the day after his own coronation: ‘an egle of gold garnysshed with perles and precious stones in which is closed the precious relique called the ampulle … to abide and remayne after his decesse within the forsaid monastery among the regalies now beyng in the said monastery for evermore’. By the king’s orders this holy object was to be available for delivery to him whenever he should ask for it.

© Annette Carson 2016

Information taken from publications by H.M. Government and the Royal Collections Trust (and see Royal Collection website). N.B. Miniature reproductions of these items are commercially available.

Speculation is not assertion

If you write books, as I do, you will be reviewed, and you’ll encounter criticism … but unless it calls for a necessary correction of fact, or a dialogue with a colleague, a writer doesn’t pay too much attention. A review is the reader’s personal opinion, to which he or she is entitled. And when the review contains errors of fact, as they often do, their own mistakes and prejudices are usually self-revelatory.

There is, however, something about a particular review of Richard III: The Maligned King on It’s been on there several years but it always seems to come up first, I don’t know why. The interesting thing with this reviewer (and she is not alone) is that she likes to receive her history as a series of facts. People of this persuasion want nice neat conclusions, and are reluctant to recognize nuances and alternative possibilities. But of course if one is taking a revisionist view of Richard III one is perpetually dallying with the unexplained, looking at alternatives and conjecturing with possibilities that traditional historians dismiss.

All too many writers of history produce a theory and then proceed to write of it as if it had been proven. Some even base entire books on flights of conjecture – two that immediately come to mind are Baldwin’s The Lost Prince and Ashdown-Hill’s Dublin King. However, in my writing I have always made a clear distinction between evidence that can be found in the records, and theories that arise from looking at that evidence in a different way.

In The Maligned King I float innumerable theories, whether my own or derived from other sources, and in the latter case I credit the source if known. At the outset I made it crystal clear – even to the extent of using a question mark for the chapter title (‘Poisoned?’) – that the idea of the possible assassination of Edward IV was questionable. Moreover, speculation about his death was not invented by me. It goes back at least as far as Polydore Vergil, and is mentioned in other 15th/16th century writings (which I cite). The specific argument I quoted, for poisoning by arsenic, was set out in writing by Richard E. Collins, whose name I have repeated some twenty times in the text. It was not my suggestion because I am not medically qualified to make it. Collins, on the other hand, did have such qualifications and consulted medically qualified colleagues. Even so, I made a point of describing it as ‘a rather revolutionary suggestion’, and added ‘Admittedly no evidence whatsoever can be advanced to support this theory; it is no more than a hypothesis, and a speculative one at that’.

Careful readers were aware of this, and indeed a Ricardian discussion forum was set up online in which our exchanges about Edward IV’s death were very illuminating and continued for some considerable time. Readers were perceptive enough to realize that in our age, 500 years after those events took place, we do not know as much as historians would like us to think we know. My ‘arsenic bomb’ was used on purpose at the outset of the book to set the cat among the pigeons, as a warning that this author wasn’t going to accept tame explanations for controversial events, especially events that seemed inexplicable at the time (see Crowland) and about which there was reported to be much speculation.

Yet, to return to the review on, the book’s examination of Richard Collins’s ideas is described as ‘HER [= my] strident argument for the poisoning’. All along, the investigations I have repeatedly credited to Collins are described as MINE. His dismissal of appendicitis is described as MY dismissal. His ‘case for Edward IV’s poisoning’ is described as MY case. This is only the first of three important points she has missed, presumably in her eagerness to advance her own set of theories about death by natural causes. The second point she has missed is Richard Collins’s analysis of the ability of Edward’s royal physicians to recognize symptoms of familiar (and therefore explicable) diseases such as those she suggests.

As I said above, I don’t dispute the reviewer’s right to her own opinions, which she expresses at length and much more forcefully than the opinions in my book to which she objects. My main problem lies with the last important point she has missed, which is to misconstrue the nature and purpose of the exercise. It’s a metaphor – a question, not an answer. It is not to present a case that Edward IV was poisoned, but to open my book with a clear challenge to the reader. This challenge is to reconsider an event that raised suspicions 500 years ago but which no modern historian bothers to address. Only by challenging entrenched assumptions and subjecting old evidence to new examination can we remain capable of making sense of what the past really tells us. If only we will listen and continually question. 

Proof … evidence … report … gossip … rumour …

Ever since I’ve been reading and researching around Richard III I have learnt to question what people write about history. History belongs to all of us, so when I read books about history in the non-fiction category I don’t always find the greatest sense emanates from writers who class themselves as historians. In any case, historians disagree with each other all the time: you can’t always be discovering new material, so it’s often a case of arguing over existing material.

As I write in 2015, the 8th centenary year of Magna Carta, already two books have been published that take divergent views of King John.

Very little, therefore, is set in stone. Look in Wikipedia and you’ll find the birth date of Richard III’s grandfather (Richard of Conisbrough, Earl of Cambridge) is given as 1375. This is the date I always read in history books. It’s only in recent months that I’ve learned he was actually born in 1385. A rather important matter of illegitimacy hangs on this, as those of us who read Richard III Society publications will be aware of. But what’s the proof? I won’t know that until I read the book, which is now (sigh) on my reading list. I’m prepared to take a guess that there won’t be any actual proof … although there may well be evidence.

Proof is a difficult thing to prove, if I may coin a phrase. One of the constantly recurring questions in the Richard III debate is what proof we have that Edward IV married Eleanor Talbot (Lady Eleanor Butler), and the answer is: none. Just as we have no proof that Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville (Dame Elizabeth Grey). By marrying in secret, without calling banns, Edward managed to circumvent any official record of either of his marriages. So in this instance there is no proof, evidence, or official documentation.

There are, however, reports of both the Talbot and the Woodville marriages. In the case of Elizabeth, Edward eventually announced the secret marriage himself (or so we are told). In the case of Eleanor we have a description of the circumstances of the secret marriage as recounted by the Burgundian/French chronicler Philippe de Commynes, writing circa 1490s. He reported that Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells (an erstwhile Chancellor of England), came forward and publicly revealed the pre-existence of the Talbot marriage at which he had been present. Commynes was no apologist for Stillington, in fact he gave his personal opinion that the bishop lied. Chroniclers were in the habit of giving their personal opinions. So for the diligent researcher there follow several steps. One step is to try to evaluate the reliability of Philippe de Commynes’s testimony (and opinions). Other steps are to seek whether there is corroborating evidence for (a) the marriage, and (b) the allegation that Stillington was behind the information. Clues are hard to find, but it’s relevant to consider to what extent Stillington was rewarded, either by Edward IV or by Richard III.

In the context of 1483, if a prominent bishop and ex-chancellor came forward and gave sworn testimony on such a serious matter, he would have been believed. Evidence that he was believed may be seen in the petition presented to Richard III to take the throne, which (although it hasn’t survived independently) was reproduced within the Act of Parliament known as Titulis regius, which announced its contents as parliamentary evidence and authority for Richard’s accession.

I almost overlooked adding that this petition and Act of Parliament serve as the only extant, written, public testimony declaring that Edward IV married Eleanor Talbot. AND the only extant, written, public testimony that he married Elizabeth Woodville. 

It is also relevant that no contemporary record exists of any denial or refutation of the Talbot marriage by any of the parties affected by it, e.g. Eleanor’s family or Elizabeth’s family. As Brian Wainwright has pointed out, it would have been a massively elaborate subterfuge to have invented the entire story, with dates falling conveniently into place at every turn – and, moreover, spun it around a kinswoman of the Earl of Shrewsbury, Earl of Warwick and Duchess of Norfolk – and never encounter a word of denial from any source.

The researcher will find that a form of marriage so apparently informal and undocumented was actually considered binding by the Church. And that under canon law, Edward’s subsequent action in secretly marrying Elizabeth Woodville rendered the offspring of the Woodville marriage illegitimate.

I always urge interested enquirers to research for themselves and not take my word for anything. My book Richard III: The Maligned King makes a serious effort to enumerate and summarize as many relevant sources as possible so that readers may consult them and reach their own conclusions. 

So, equipped with the results of the above investigations, the actions of Henry VII must now be assessed. How did Henry handle the question of the Talbot marriage and its effect in rendering Edward IV’s offspring illegitimate (including Edward’s daughter Elizabeth of York whom he took to wife, an important move in ‘legitimizing’ his occupancy of the throne of England)? Did he or his wife repudiate Edward’s first marriage? Did either of them bring forward testimony or submit the case to any court? 

Actually, no. Henry VII decreed that Titulus regius be repealed without going through the normal process of a prior reading in Parliament, and proclaimed that every copy be destroyed on pain of condign punishment. When his justices suggested an investigation, Henry quashed the idea, although he did pursue the elderly Bishop Stillington the length of England and clapped him in prison. Oh, and gave him a pardon.

The foregoing is written from memory and should not be taken as an authoritative exposition of the case. It is intended as a very brief summary to demonstrate the kinds of processes that researchers and writers like me would follow when looking for clues – often tenuous – as to what actually happened five centuries ago. Some evidence, such as an official record, would carry more weight than other clues might. However, when it comes to accepting or rejecting the veracity of any particular item, I believe it’s up to the researcher to demonstrate his or her reasons: reasons which, above all, need to be embedded in the beliefs, norms and customs of the period in question, and avoid reflecting the sensibilities of later centuries.

The Problem with ‘Usurpation’

© Annette Carson 2015

With my long-standing interest in treason and usurpation, I was fascinated to see the video of the mock trial of the Magna Carta barons staged in the wonderful surroundings of Westminster Hall on 31 July 2015.* I use the term ‘Magna Carta barons’ loosely, and indeed the trial itself could address only one arbitrary, early point in the long journey of the development of that charter which eventually gained its famous title. This was the moment in time at which King John had, after much ducking and diving, sealed the charter in June 1215 and immediately reneged by getting Pope Innocent III to repudiate it.

Though doubtless there will be historians who disagree, I take it – as did the script of the trial – that King John had hitherto behaved in a manner so thoroughly unacceptable as to be termed tyrannical. In giving his judgement, The Hon. Stephen Breyer from the USA cited John Locke’s (albeit anachronistic) assessment that for his subjects to have the right to rebel, a king should be seen to have systematically refused to adhere to the law of the land. Of course no method of testing a king’s behaviour in a court of law existed in 1215, but for his rule to be considered truly tyrannical I think this criterion would be taken as read.

Legal frameworks of the time would have been governed by the weight of precedent, and certainly the judges at our mock trial took the view that John himself had been ‘made king’ by a legal process. This process included religious ceremonial with sacred oath-taking, not only oaths of allegiance but also the coronation oath sworn by the king himself. In consequence of King John’s breaching of the latter, the rebellious barons invoked a long-standing custom and – therefore – legal right known as diffidatio, i.e. they exercised the right of a free man to repudiate his oath of loyalty to his overlord for a justifiable reason. Underpinning this right of diffidatio was the recognition that fealty was a two-way street: that for a subject to keep his oath, the king must do the same.

In our modern age, when promises made are routinely broken, and ‘God-fearing’ is no longer a term to be taken literally, the significance of an oath sworn while invoking the presence of God is scarcely understood and seldom respected: consider the context of judicial process, which is one of the few surviving circumstances when such oaths are still routinely encountered (and routinely flouted). Yet in the Middle Ages, as I have tried to indicate in writings such as my Small Guide to the Great Debate, the process of oath-swearing was one of the pillars of mediaeval society. It was a crucial matter if either party abandoned their solemn oath.

The bonds of this mutual compact defined the relationship between king and subject, already long-established by the 13th century, and gradually developing throughout the ages. It is this promise on the part of the king that is most often forgotten in the cries of ‘usurper!’ that are so widely bandied about in relation to certain monarchs; and it is key to my repeatedly asserted argument that most often the term ‘usurpation’ is a misnomer that merely reflects the prejudices of the person using it.

In pre-Conquest England there was in place a history of election of kings by the Saxon equivalent of Parliament, based on the fundamental requirement of the office to perform a mutually understood function: the defence of the realm and its people. This was gradually extended to include wider responsibilities, notably for the proper administration of justice. In return, the king was entitled to call upon his people to perform whatever was understood to be due to enable him to fulfil such responsibilities. The principle that the king had a duty to perform a job of work continued to be understood for many centuries, and it was only by analogy with succession from father to son in other areas of life that a similar expectation developed in relation to the throne. Although kings often tried to influence who succeeded them, there was never any ‘law of succession’.

Requirements such as embodying the fount of justice as well as the office of leader and commander throw a clear light on crises of succession like the deposition of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI who fell short of expectations. An even more relevant case is that of the conflict between Stephen and Matilda. Matilda might be the only surviving legitimate issue of Henry I, but his decision to make her his heir was self-serving and ultimately catastrophic: she was not born into an age when a woman could don harness and lead an army in the field. Returning to the mock trial of the barons, a question raised by the presiding judge exemplifies an abiding misapprehension on this point. Why, asked the judge, did the barons in 1215 not choose to replace John with his son, Henry (later Henry III), then aged seven? The question answers itself when you are not blinded by the assumption that the crown was governed by some imagined law of father-to-son succession: in a time of turmoil and civil strife, when the very rule of the land needed to be taken into strong hands, what fool was going to opt for rule by a seven-year-old? That he was later able to succeed upon his father’s death (now aged nine) was principally a function of the abilities and virtues of William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, his champion and Regent of England.

In 1399 a new dimension entered into the matter of the succession when Henry IV challenged Richard II for the crown and the latter abdicated, rather than defending his right to the death as would have been appropriate to the tradition of the warrior-king. Parliament was drawn into the front line in the disposition of the crown, going through the formal procedure of acknowledging the abdication of Richard and the succession of Henry. The new king is said to have publicly exhibited proof of his genealogy, but the record of the Rolls of Parliament is remarkably non-committal in regard to his descent, and much more specific as to the rewards of his victory over the ruinous former king:

‘In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, I, Henry of Lancaster, claim this realm of England, and the crown with all its members and its appurtenances, inasmuch as I am descended by right line of the blood from the good lord King Henry the third, and through that right that God in his grace has sent me, with the help of my kin and of my friends in recovering it, which realm was at the point of ruin for lack of governance and destruction of the good laws.’ [Parliamentary Rolls of Mediaeval England, 1399 Part 1, vol. iii, pp.422-3.] 

Here we have an echo of that same accusation as used by the barons against King John; and despite the fascinating arguments concerning precisely which line of royal descent Henry IV might have claimed, the salient point of this remarkable statement, as accepted and recorded by Parliament, was that God had favoured him in stepping in to avert the ruin of the realm. Had there existed a law of succession which stipulated primogeniture, there was in fact a royal descendant whose claim would have been superior to Henry’s: this was the young Mortimer heir Edmund, Earl of March, then the same age as the son of King John whom we encountered above. Clearly, when the option of the valorous and successful adult Henry was available, there was no support for the claims of a seven-year-old, however senior his line of descent. A child of that age, and one who lacked the support of a strong figure as Regent, ipso facto failed the basic qualification as warlord-cum-lawgiver. 

It is also noteworthy that the childless Richard II, knowing that the succession to the crown was being eyed by his several uncles, had kept them guessing by naming alternative heirs at different times: another indication that primogeniture was not regarded as the primary criterion. Henry IV, once on the throne, tried to secure the succession to his line by statutory enactment in Parliament, but the view of Stanley Chrimes (in English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, p.24) is that this was merely declaratory and did not determine the line of succession: it recognized but ‘did not create’ Henry’s title. By the same token, it made no general provision for a public law of succession.

Only in 1460, when Richard, Duke of York came to press his claim to the throne in opposition to Henry VI, was the emphasis on primogeniture brought to the fore. York’s claim depended on it wholly – it rested on his sharing the same senior line of descent as the Mortimer heir disenfranchised by Henry of Lancaster sixty years earlier. And although Parliament made several attempts to avoid passing judgement on the matter, when forced to reach a conclusion they decided in York’s favour. There were, of course, excellent reasons for striking the bargain that reduced Henry VI to a cipher, since his inept and compliant rule had bankrupted the crown and allowed England to degenerate into a smouldering civil war.

In the case of Henry IV, could the word ‘usurpation’ be applied? The historically literate answer is no. In 1399 Richard II had abdicated rather than defend his crown to the death, effectively abandoning the throne to the judgement of Parliament which accepted Henry of Lancaster’s argument that God had helped him rescue the realm from misgovernment and lawlessness. This echoed the complaints of the Magna Carta barons, namely that the king had resiled from his sacred oath to fulfil his responsibilities to his subjects. So by these standards, and as accepted by Parliament, Henry IV cannot be named a usurper in terms of the legal structure of the day.

It was only in 1460 that Richard, Duke of York secured a decision by Parliament which established primogeniture as an acknowledged criterion for the succession. How this criterion was applied in hindsight to the Lancastrian succession raises a thicket of legal questions, the untangling of which would take someone more expert in jurisprudence than me. Clearly York’s argument was that the first Lancastrian king was a usurper, and his statement to Parliament went into extensive genealogical detail to disprove Henry’s fanciful tale that his mother’s line of descent from Henry III was senior to the line of Edward III and Richard II. However, to this inexpert observer it seems that the Parliament of 1460 stopped short of disallowing the legitimacy of the Lancastrian dynasty, which fits with their desire to reach a compromise with Henry VI. It would have been simpler, and in hindsight would have prevented much unrest and loss of life, if they had declared him a scion of a usurping line, but that would have meant deposing him. Perhaps their legal advisers balked at the idea of retrospective legislation. And York himself had always vowed himself Henry’s true subject. Whatever their reasoning, an accommodation was cobbled together which permitted Henry to keep his crown on condition that York was acknowledged as his heir apparent. I am tempted to suppose that the Lords in Parliament recognized that Henry’s mental capacity was dubious, and that it would be unrealistic to hold him to oaths he had sworn as a child which he probably no longer remembered or comprehended. Whichever way you look at it, although York’s claim of primogeniture was accepted, the deal of 1460 was unique to the prevailing circumstances; it could scarcely be regarded as a precedent, and indeed it permitted the line of Lancaster to cling to the view that theirs remained the rightful royal house of England.

Thus Parliament had signally failed to grasp the opportunity to codify any law that stipulated primogeniture (or anything else) as a qualification for the succession. As Stanley Chrimes commented, ‘It does indeed seem that no such public law existed. In the absence of a direct and competent heir, politics, not law determined the succession. Hence both judges and commons avoided the topic.’ [Op. cit. p.22.] 

The effect was that however the royal family’s internal issues were decided, whether by themselves or by any outside agency, the situation remained as it was in 1215: that he who took on the sworn obligations of kingship would be held to account for how he performed them. And if he should be adjudged deficient, it was not usurpation but a necessary service to the kingdom to remove and replace him. For those of us who have crossed swords in the past with James Eadie, QC, there was a particular piquancy to his defeat on this occasion.

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