Archive for August, 2015

Richard of Gloucester as Lord of the North and the siege of Berwick 1482

August 27, 2015

Having recently visited some of Richard’s holdings in the north of England such as Penrith Castle which he was given after the death of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick in 1471, I wanted to write a short piece about his role as Lord Warden of the West Marches and Sheriff of Cumberland (1476-1482) and his involvement in the complicated story of the border town of Berwick-on-Tweed which led to its thirteenth and final change of hands when he successfully took the castle on 24th August 1482.


Plan of Penrith Castle showing the phases of building by the lords who owned it in their preparation for ‘effectual measures against the Scots.’ (Ferguson, A History of Cumberland, 1898, p.238) The blue areas were built during Richard’s tenure when he used Penrith as a base as Lord warden of the West Marches.

Richard seems keen to take on his duties as the principle magnate of the North of England after his brother’s return to power in 1471. There are many reasons why he should have actively sought to become Lord Warden of the West Marches and why Edward IV would have promoted his ambitions. Everyone knows about Richard’s connections to Middleham and the surrounding area where he received his knight’s training as a youth under the guidance of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, The Kingmaker and that the Neville’s were a hugely influential and prolifically fertile family in the area caught in a bitter rivalry with the Percy family who were the Earls of Northumberland and had a track record to make any ruler jittery.


Ralph Neville depicted with some of his numerous offspring including his daughter Cecily who was Richard’s mother by his marriage to Joan Beaufort.

Richard could establish himself in an area where his family connections would stand him in good stead and Edward was very canny at balancing one powerful affiliation against another in order to maintain the status quo and not beyond using his loyal brother in this way to counter-act and check Percy ambitions in the North. Further Richard sought to marry the newly widowed Anne Neville and claim her Neville inheritance including Middleham, Sheriff Hutton and Penrith amongst other holdings in the area. The date of their marriage is disputed but likely to have occurred around 1472 according to one of the Paston letters. Again Edward IV sought to balance the power of his own brothers by negotiating a compromise settlement over the Neville inheritance so that neither gained full control of this massive fortune through their marriages to the two daughters of the Kingmaker and the influence that went with it. The dispute left a further cause of dissent and distrust at the heart of the Yorkist regime which would continue to have consequences in the future but Richard got down to business and began to fully establish himself in his northern power base. Edward IV needed a strong, dependable, able and diplomatically sensitive representative in this crucial area near the border with Scotland for several reasons. The Northern lords were in a constant state of semi-hostile one-upmanship against each other. Related by a complex web of marriage alliances but always seeking to exploit each other’s weaknesses they were a perennial headache for their monarch and far enough away from the seat of government to pose a serious threat to the stability of the state, especially with the Scots watching on and waiting for the opportunity to cross over the border in raiding parties. Edward needed a steady hand on the tiller with sufficient authority to act as a curb to all these power hungry lords and who could undertake the onerous duties to banging heads together and settling minor disputes to take the pressure off his sovereign. The northern lords were also those responsible for keeping the Scots out of English territories and preserving a strong line of resistance during peaceful interludes between raids. Wardens were appointed for the Western, Middle and Eastern Marches reporting to the Lord Warden General who in turn reported to the king. A similar arrangement existed north of the border into Scotland.


Penrith Castle – Richard installed large windows and domestic improvements during his tenure.

Castles like Penrith, Brough and Brougham were built on the ruins of ancient Roman forts that formed a chain of military encampments through Westmorland and Cumbria leading to Carlisle and Hadrian’s wall. You can even still see Roman tombstones which were used in the construction of the castle walls and the rectangular earthworks of the roman camps just outside the castle walls at Brough and Brougham.


The gatehouse at Brougham Castle. The remains of the roman encampment are to the right of the main gateway.

The owners of these defensive structures knew the cost of the proximity to the Scottish border and the walls still bear witness to the destructive raids of the Scots and the desperate defence by the garrisons. It was a ‘twitchy’ area to set up residence and you can imagine the night watch patrolling the battlements and looking for armies on the brow of the distant fells. The landscape is epic in scale, carved by glaciers with huge skies and ever changing weather patterns. It is country to breed hardy men and women who dig in for the long-term and endure like the Herdwick sheep who graze on the hillsides. Richard was taking on what some might see as a poisonous inheritance but the rewards for success were great.


The battered remains of Brough Castle owned by the Cliffords and besieged by the Scots.

As a younger son of the House of York Richard needed a niche for himself. He needed to build a strong affiliation of his own in order to support his brother’s regime in times of trial but also to balance his treacherous elder brother George of Clarence whose instability and ambitious nature posed a great threat to Richard’s position within his brother’s court. George wanted it all, preferably on a golden platter before lunchtime and Richard knew that he wouldn’t survive unless he got his elbows out and his head down and lived up to his nickname of the ‘tantony pig’ of the family. Moreover Edward owed him for the loyalty and success that Richard had brought to the previous period of their lives when he had stood firmly behind his brother and helped fight their way back to power. Richard was a prince of the blood and conscious of his worth and position as any other prince would have been. I don’t see his ambition as over-weaning as some suggest or as any sinister shadow of his later rise to the throne, just the natural product of his position and the circumstances in which he found himself. Ducal status brought with it a substantial burden of financial obligations in order to live to the required level demanded by the status-bound culture of the C15th. A Duke required not only land and property and the revenues raised from those holdings but also the manpower to muster troops in order to defend those holdings and to do their feudal duty to their overlord. There seems to be much criticism and censure from some modern historians and commentators about the ‘greed’ of medieval nobles but when you understand their actions in the context of the world in which they operated it is perhaps easier to appreciate why they appear acquisitive and power-hungry to modern eyes.

Edward IV established the Council of the North in 1472 with Richard as its Lord President supported by a group of loyal nobles to administer royal justice, promote governmental control and increase prosperity and good governance. It is interesting to note that once Richard became king he appointed his little son Edward of Middleham to the position and then his heir John de la Pole, 1st Earl of Lincoln – both people who he could continue to govern through and that Henry VII made first Prince Arthur and then Margaret Beaufort his representative in the North. The monarch had to have complete faith in or control over the holder of this crucial role which speaks for Edward’s trust in his youngest brother.

In 1474 Edward IV and James III of Scotland made a treaty to ensure 45 years of peace between their countries and pledged the hand of his daughter, Princess Cecily, to the young Prince James with a dowry of 20,000 marks to be paid in yearly instalments to keep James sweet.

In 1475 an Act of Parliament granted all the Neville lands in the North to Richard, Duke of Gloucester which dis-inherited George Neville, Ist Duke of Bedford who also lost his mother’s inheritance to Edward IV. This may have been in part due to the continuing deteriorating relationship between Edward IV and Clarence who was finally executed in 1478 but also reflects Edward’s confidence in Richard’s abilities and his success in administering the North for the crown.

By 1480 the truce was in tatters due to a raid on Bamburgh Castle by the Duke of Angus and reprisal attacks by the Earl of Northumberland and furthered by the re-emergence of the ‘auld alliance’ between France and Scotland. The French were supplying artillery and gunners in an attempt to cause trouble for the English crown once more. Edward IV began to prepare for a Scottish campaign in October 1480 and Richard of Gloucester was his intended commander. Edward IV made it clear that the Scots were breaking the terms of the truce in occupying Berwick, Roxburgh and Coldingham and had failed to do homage to Edward.

Edward set up a naval blockade of the Firth of Fourth and King James strengthened the walls at Berwick in preparation for hostilities but then received a letter from the Pope calling for peace and assistance against the Turks and withdrew his forces. Edward continued to pursue his grievance against the Scots harrying the coast and besieging Berwick during the winter of 1481-2. Meanwhile James’s brother, Alexander, Duke of Albany returned from France and offered an alliance with Edward IV if he would assist Albany in taking his brother’s throne. The terms of their agreement were that Alexander would hand over Berwick and various other holdings to England after he became king, renounce the ‘auld alliance’ and do homage to Edward as his vassal. Edward seized the opportunity to become a potential ‘kingmaker’ in Scotland and re-assert English dominance of the border area and Richard marched with Albany and a combined force of 20,000 troops and foreign mercenaries to besiege the town of Berwick which fell quickly but the garrison held out so Lord Stanley was left to continue the siege and Richard took forces into Roxburghshire and Berwickshire devastating the area and expecting to meet with Scottish forces. On 22 July, King James’s dissatisfied lords took their king prisoner at Lauder, hung his favourites from the bridge and returned with their royal prisoner to Edinburgh. As Richard moved towards the capital the rebels moved to Haddington, fifteen miles away, and awaited developments. Despite reaching Edinburgh Richard’s forces were insufficient and support for Albany melted away. Albany settled for the restoration of his lands and titles. The Scottish lords asked for a peace treaty and that the proposed marriage between Prince James and Cecily of York should go ahead. Richard demanded the return of Berwick Castle and the dowry paid for the princess. The settlement was that the marriage would go ahead if it were King Edward’s wish, otherwise the dowry would be repaid. Richard left Edinburgh, disbanded most of his army at Berwick on 11 August, and continued with the siege. The castle fell on 24 August 1482 and has been part of England ever since.


The Scottish campaign of 1482 under the command of Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

The Croyland Chronicle was fairly dismissive of the campaign as a waste of money that gained little for the English crown and of Richard’s part in the capture of Berwick and I think there is an element of ‘spin’ in the ecstatic tone of the official letter to Pope Sixtus IV the following day after Berwick fell to the English which praises Richard for taking the town without a single civilian casual. What the campaign demonstrated though was that Edward IV was no longer the brilliant and active military commander he had been and that Richard was capable of leading a major force in a campaign of national importance. The outcome was not perhaps as glorious as either Edward or Richard might have wanted but it provided a shot across the bows for both the Scottish king and French ambitions in this arena.


The Tewkesbury Medieval Festival 2015

August 12, 2015


King Edward's camp above Bloody Meadow. King Edward’s camp above Bloody Meadow.

I’ve been wanting to attend this festival for at least 20 years and finally everything came together this year and I was able to take my family with me for an orgy of medieval shopping, weaponry, costumes and merchandising followed by the re-enactment of the Battle of Tewkesbury on part of the original site of the battlefield and later ‘storming of the Abbey’ in the evening. People attend for many reasons – many to soak up the atmosphere and watch the weird and wonderful sights as the weekend unfolds, some for the history and some for the crac. Re-enactors travel across Europe – I saw stall holders from Prague, Lithuania, Germany and France this year and many take it seriously, making their own costumes with great attention to detail and demonstrating artisan skills such as wood carving, metal working, armoury and medieval crafts as…

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Bosworth Re-enactment: the moral maze.

August 11, 2015

I have been considering various angles for a blog about Bosworth this year. I think there is an interesting debate to be had about the ‘re-enactment’ phenomenon that seems to be increasingly popular and to what extent these events are a tribute to the fallen warriors of long ago, a commercial merry-go-round, a deeply serious lifestyle choice for the people taking part or a bit of harmless fun for all the family for spectators? People attend these events for so many reasons but when they are enacted on the same soil as the original battle is there a ‘moral’ dimension which needs to be considered amidst the picnics and face painting?

Is it partly a question of the distance of time? Could we imagine a D-Day re-enactment with our children dressed in WWII costume? Is there a romance about watching knights in armour and massed archers which removes the action sufficiently from reality to disconnect it from the actuality of the real battlefield for some viewers?

These are difficult questions to answer personally because I do not feel that distance of time which might be the case for many people who aren’t passionately engaged with C15th history. I have never felt the past to be another country and indeed often find myself more attuned to that period than my own age whilst I am always conscious of the deep divide in ideology and experience which separates me from those men and women who actually lived then. Of course our personal perspective slews our responses to these issues and without asking everyone present to answer a detailed survey we can only speculate about the motivations of those who decide to buy a ticket for the Bosworth Heritage Centre event for 22nd August this year.

I have no doubt that the level of interest this year will have increased due to the coverage of the Re-interment of Richard’s remains in March and the global media coverage since the discovery of his remains. You can’t visit Leicester or live nearby without being aware of the connection with this event and many people are probably more likely to visit on the anniversary weekend due to these factors. However for many other people who are interested in medieval military history or The Wars of the Roses generally Bosworth is one date on the calendar that also marks an annual ‘pilgrimage’ to Towton, Northampton, Tewkesbury etc… and even further afield to Azincourt and other European battlefields with names that resonate through the ages.

Having attended other re-enactments recently I know that often the commentators ask those watching to think about the human cost of these ancient conflicts and request a minute’s silence before the commencement of the engagement. What would the men who fought and died or were injured or executed after the battle think about people coming to mark the anniversary of the event by re-enacting it? Lord only knows we might reply and should we care? Once we become a part of history we have no control over how our lives will be perceived by future generations, no influence over their emotional investment in the tragedies and triumphs which led to our deaths. Is it better to be remembered even if that opens the flood gates for notoriety, infamy, crass insensitivity, ridicule?

For me there is a fine line between re-enactment and the ‘Disneyfication’ of the past but when it is done well there is also an element of commemoration and respect as well. When the artillery is fired and I watch the smoke drift across the battlefield I wonder whether the vibrations stir ancient bones beneath the soil. We know that the Towton mass grave can not be the only such grizzly find waiting to be unearthed from the area. There must be human remains under many of these battlefields who never made it to consecrated ground and most likely these were from among the ranks of the poorer soldiers or mercenaries. After Bosworth mass graves were dug at Dadlington churchyard for those killed on the field yet the earth remains charged with the events which took place there. One of the most touching symbolic acts of the Re-interment ceremony saw three small containers of soil taken from Richard’s birthplace at Fotheringhay, from his residence at Middleham and from the field of Bosworth which were enclosed in his new tomb. The ground itself remains significant as does the wider topography of the battlefield site.

As with many other battlefield sites there is debate over whether the standard that flies on Ambion Hill truly marks the spot where Richard watched the engagement unfold. Walking the trail you have a strange sense of dislocation and sometimes frustration at a glimpse of a field which might have been where Norfolk met his end or notice a line of ditches which may have been lethal for men fleeing the Earl of Oxford’s vanguard in the initial phase of the battle. Everything is approximate and compromised and this is reflected in the process of re-enactment. You can’t begin to really replicate Richard’s doomed cavalry charge or the final melee with anything like the real number of men or horses let alone the poor soul playing Sir Percival Thirwell who famously lost both legs but kept the royal standard aloft til his last breath. Do the difficulties of accuracy and authenticity detract from the aims of such events, if indeed, the aims are more than providing entertainment to the crowds and filling up the coffers in the Heritage Centre shop? Is there an element of trivialization if you can’t actually represent the final change in terms of scale and drama and indeed tragedy where these events are better left to the imagination?

Education is a major factor in these displays as well. Re-enactment and living history allow children in particular to engage with history in a more direct way than visiting a museum or watching a documentary might. My own children love dressing up and role playing historical events and characters and I encourage this in the hope that it will lead on to a better understanding and empathy with the past and that as they grow older they will learn the skills of a historian – the ability to see all sides and weigh evidence but to make judgement with compassion and wisdom because they have formed a real attachment to the lives of these people and see them as flesh and blood people. If the children present take something away with them that informs their later relationship with history that is surely all to the good as long as they also take away more than the veneer of clanking armour and kings with gilt crowns who get up again after they have been slain. History has be more than entertainment, more than figures seen at a distance and two-dimensional commentary which reduces the protagonists to goodies and baddies to be cheered and booed in equal measure before a dash to the car park. Accessibility is a good thing but education must also be rounded and full-bodied if it isn’t to run the risk of being ‘dumbed -down’ to the level of spectacle.

So where does all this leave me? Conflicted is probably the best description as I love to watch a trebuchet be fired and cheer a jousting team with the rest of them. I want to ‘enjoy’ a re-enactment but am also terribly conflicted about what I am actually commemorating and how it should be contextualized and never more so than on 22nd August every year.

I have deliberately opened up multiple questions and failed to answer any of them as I am interested to hear other opinions on these issues and to consider more questions which I have not covered in this blog so I look forward to your responses. I would also temper my criticism of re-enactments by saying that I have been generally very impressed by the level of detail and knowledge of re-enactors who devote many hours to making costumes and learning a variety of skills to a high level of competence and who are often extremely gifted at communicating their interest and knowledge to the general public at these events. My reservations are not leveled at these individuals but at the wider context in which these events take place.