Archive for October, 2015

Revisiting Azincourt – 600 years of myth making.

October 30, 2015
King Henry Vth

King Henry Vth

O for pity!–we shall much disgrace
With four or five most vile and ragged foils,
Right ill-disposed in brawl ridiculous,
The name of Agincourt. Yet sit and see,
Minding true things by what their mockeries be.’

I have always been fascinated by the battle of Azincourt since I first watched the grainy images of Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film version on a wet afternoon off school sick as a child. What I found so compelling about the film was the layer on layer interpretation of Shakespeare’s play. Olivier set the action in The Globe theatre of 1600 with his actors wearing Elizabethan dress and contemporary hair styles but then as the camera moved through a gauzy curtain as he took the action to Southampton the viewer was transported back to August 1415 and the costumes changed to elaborate and very beautiful copies of C15th dress as he left the confines of the little ‘wooden ‘O’ of the Globe and turned to full technicolour movie action.

Battle of Agincourt

Battle of Agincourt

I was very conscious of the cinematic devices at work throughout the film and the propaganda value of Olivier’s nationalistic masterpiece at the height of World War II. What better vehicle for expressing the sentiment of Shakespeare’s ‘band of brothers’ than relating the legend of Henry Vth’s victory against overwhelming odds to the struggle for freedom in Europe played out on the beaches of Normandy?

The film was made near the end of the war and was intended as a morale booster for Britain and was partly funded by the British government. The film was originally “dedicated to the ‘Commandos and Airborne Troops of Great Britain the spirit of whose ancestors it has been humbly attempting to recapture.’” The movie won Olivier an Honourary Award by the Academy for “his Outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

Poster for the 1944 film version of Henry Vth

Poster for the 1944 film version of Henry Vth

Then, as I studied more about Shakespeare’s version of Henry Vth’s campaign, I began to understand a further layer of interpretation and political propaganda at work at the Elizabethan court. England poised against the two super powers of Spain and France, proud of her independence and her illustrious history of fighting off both countries whether that be in the mud of Normandy or on in the English channel. Shakespeare likens the native soldier to a mastiff hound, seen by the arrogant French commanders as brutal and single-minded, courageous but bound on a course of self-destructive aggression and unable to comprehend when they are beaten and should withdraw to fight another day.


That island of England breeds very valiant
creatures; their mastiffs are of unmatchable courage.


Foolish curs, that run winking into the mouth of a
Russian bear and have their heads crushed like
rotten apples! You may as well say, that’s a
valiant flea that dare eat his breakfast on the lip of a lion.


Just, just; and the men do sympathize with the
mastiffs in robustious and rough coming on, leaving
their wits with their wives: and then give them
great meals of beef and iron and steel, they will
eat like wolves and fight like devils.

Moving back in history to the period before Shakespeare composed his play, the exploits of King Henry Vth were still regarded as a model to be emulated and referenced. In 1513, when Henry VIII led an expedition to France, the anonymous ‘translator of Livius’ published ‘The First Life of King Henry the Fifth’ to coincide with the campaign and flatter Henry’s enormous ego no doubt.

Previously in 1475, when Edward IV mounted a new invasion of France via English Calais, William Worcester completed his ‘Boke of Noblesse’, urging Edward to imitate Henry V. King Edward, whose great uncle Edward of Norwich, 2nd Duke of York had died a hero’s death at Azincourt protecting King Henry from the Duke of Alencon’s offensive, set out on a French campaign and took his army to the field of the battle to soak up the atmosphere and propaganda value of the association before he sold out to Louis XI’s offer of a lucrative pension in lieu of military action.  The two kings agreed to a seven-year truce and free-trade between the two countries.  Edward IV received 75,000 crowns upfront, essentially a bribe to return to England and not take up arms to pursue his claims in France. He would then receive a yearly pension thereafter of 50,000 crowns. Also the King of France was to ransom the deposed Lancastrian Queen, Marguerite of Anjou who was in Edward’s custody, with 50,000 crowns. It also included pensions to many of Edward’s lords who might otherwise have been rather more disparaging about his glorious campaign!

The Plantagenet kings of England whether they were Lancastrian or Yorkist could never relinquish the dream of re-gaining those territories in France which had been won back by Edward III and the Black Prince in the great military victories of the C14th which echoed down to their own age in the names of Crecy and Poitiers. Although the comparison between Edward IV and Henry Vth cannot be taken too far considering their respective attitudes to the prosecution of their claims and the outcome both wanted that association with their great predecessor because no monarch had ever managed to live up to Edward III’s reputation for kingship. Both were also insecure upon their thrones, the product of usurpation and disrupted lines of succession. A successful war with France was always a sure way to gain acceptance and popularity in parliament, with the people and to achieve international recognition.

Edward IV and King Louis meet on the bridge at Picquigny in 1475.

Edward IV and his rather less glorious campaign in France

Edward IV seemed to see his compromise as a great victory over the French despite certain rumblings of discontent among his own commanders including his brother, Richard of Gloucester. He commissioned a special misericord for his stall seat at St George’s Chapel in Windsor which depicted the infamous meeting on the bridge at Picquigny between himself and King Louis which might seem an unusual subject at first glance unless he intended it to be a further snub to his rival as he literally presented the royal arse to him as he rested during prayers! ‘it is undeniable that Edward was excessively pleased with the outcome of his ‘great enterprise‘ and we will never know whether he planned it like this. It must also be remembered that two of the surviving poems lamenting Edward’s death regarded the French campaign as a great victory, emphasizing that France had to pay ‘tribute‘, and that it was such a clean victory, ‘without a stroke, and afterward came home‘. (excerpt taken from the Richard III Society website

So how did the actual victor of Azincourt use his victory to his advantage in 1415?

‘Henry did attempt to secure his place in history by making Agincourt Day into a public holiday; but there was more than one saint’s day to choose from. St George had become the patron saint of England during the reign of Edward III; but Agincourt was fought on the Feast of Crispin and Crispinian. Any of these saints would have been acceptable to the Convocation of Canterbury, but the Convocation of York favoured a fourth candidate, St John of Beverley, whose shrine had oozed drops of holy oil resembling beads of sweat on the day of the battle. A compromise was reached, and it was ordained that John, as well as Crispin and Crispinian, should be celebrated in perpetuity on October 25th; that St George’s Feast in April be given the status of a ‘greater double’; and that greater attention should also be paid to the Welsh Saints, David, Winefride and Chad, on their holy days.

Agincourt entered popular culture as well as religious rites. All the English chronicles record the story, in a straightforwardly heroic manner, while the battle also gave rise to a number of ballads, including the Agincourt Carol and The English Bowman’s Glory. (taken from History Today

Henry had mortgaged the crown up the the hilt of his own sword in order to finance his pursuit of his claims in France. Defeat would have made him one of the most unsuccessful and unpopular kings of his age but his miraculous victory, against all the odds and the number of high ranking French prisoners who he brought back in triumphal procession through the streets of London secured him immortality even if he never recovered from the debilitating dysentery which he contracted during the Siege of Harfleur. The scale of the victory may have been distorted by a combination of elation and failure to record deaths among the lowly archers who comprised the bulk of his army but it enabled Henry to get more concessions from parliament for further offensives in the period immediately after Azincourt which lead to the establishment of the English Kingdom in France that clung on for the next 30 years before it was swallowed up.

Henry’s greatest achievement was also to prove his undoing though, not only in terms of the illness that claimed his life too early but also through his insistence on marriage to the French princess Catherine de Valois because fatefully their only son and heir to the kingdoms of both England and France who succeeded his father at the tender age of just 9 months carried the same insanity as her father, Charles the Well Beloved. Like his maternal grandfather Henry VI was to find himself incapable of ruling his kingdom. The resulting power struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York would usher in The Wars of the Roses and see the end of the Henry’s direct bloodline. This product of his union with France ended his days in the Tower of London, most probably murdered on the orders of Edward IV after learning that his own son and heir had been killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury.


Perkin Warbeck: A Story of Deception – The Fascinating Enigma as presented in Ann Wroe’s biography

October 29, 2015

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I wanted to write a piece about the man who we know as Perkin Warbeck or Piers Osbeck or Richard Plantagenet or King Richard IV or whoever he may have been if he was none of these other men after reading Ann Wroe’s excellent biography on this most appealing of enigmas.

Firstly I need to pay tribute to Wroe’s wonderful book which I found impossible to put down. Her writing is exceptionally beautiful and multi-layered, particularly in the first few chapters where the poetic and philosophical meet the straight historical narrative.

She begins with a very detailed description of the copy of the portrait which survives of the man who called himself Richard, Duke of York, son of King Edward IV. You could be forgiven for falling in love with him right there, not because of his strikingly gorgeous looks, his elegant poise or suggested sophistication but because of his vulnerability. He seems, in her narrative, to be a beautiful illusion; the stuff of dreams and strangely insubstantial even without the intervening centuries between us and that one tantalizing image. She likens the creative process of the original artist with the elaborate construction of his identity, the layers of deception and invention that were wound about this young man and as you read there is most certainly an impulse to wish that the ‘myth’ was true but simultaneously you are also aware that if it were indeed to be proven that Perkin was Richard then his story is almost too unbearably sad to recount.

There is a tangible sense of melancholy about her version of ‘the feigned boy’ as Henry Tudor referred to him. According to the account which he told at various European courts during his long journey to England he was marked to die as a little boy, alone save for his older brother in the fastness of the Tower, without any protector and separated from his mother and sisters. A lord came to kill him, allegedly on the orders of his uncle, Richard of Gloucester, who was, by this time already king. Despite the change in his status from the second son of King Edward IV to a bastard he still presented a sufficient threat to Richard’s fledgling monarchy and so was to be murdered along with his older brother Edward, late Prince of Wales and sometime acclaimed ‘King Edward Vth’. He recounted that Edward was indeed done to death but the unnamed lord couldn’t go through with his murder and instead smuggled him out of the Tower and abroad where he was instructed to forget his identity in order to survive and to assume another life. He was a nomad, travelling about like a piece of flotsam on the tide, somewhere between any of the established orders of society, without family or comfort and forced to live a hand-to-mouth existence. Wroe describes him as a ‘hollowed-out child whose only occupation was wandering and weeping.'(p. 90)  At last, after these wilderness years he was encouraged to assume his true identity once more. He was taken to Ireland and within moments of putting on clothes fitting to his station he was recognized as a prince and hailed by the local inhabitants as a ‘Plantagenet’ by the people of Cork though there was a degree of confusion over which one he might be.

There is a haze of mystery which hovers over his account and many questions which are left unanswered but then again this could be explained by his youth, the intervening years and latent trauma of recalling experiences which were deeply frightening and unexplained to him as he endured them. The most obvious problem with his account is, of course, why the lord whether this was Brampton, Tyrrell, Buckingham, Stanley or Sir Robert Brackenbury would have carried out half his orders but balked at finishing off the second boy? It may have been due to self interest as much as compassion because any son of Edward IV would always be worth something to someone if he could be secured and controlled and made use of. Why then murder his older brother and keep the younger son alive? Maybe the rumours of Edward’s illness were true and Richard seemed the safer bet, perhaps the older boy had too many ideas of his own and would be less pliable than the younger one? Why didn’t Richard III require proof of their double murder when so much rested upon on it? There are any number of nuanced arguments which might be made but none seem very water-tight. The man who recounted these events seemed to have brushed over these details too but presumably he must have asked himself these questions in the dark hours of the night when he prayed for the soul of his murdered brother if he truly believed he was Richard of York.

Margaret of Burgundy

Margaret of Burgundy

Then comes the narrative of his meeting with Margaret of Burgundy and the complex relationship which developed between them. Margaret was Edward IV’s sister, married to Charles the Bold of Burgundy and sent off to her new destiny with fairy-tale pagentry and a crown of surpassing beauty which still survives only to live a life of disappointments and disillusionment and long years struggling to find a place for herself after her husband’s death between the great powers of Europe. Margaret was, naturally, eager to meet the young man who claimed to be her surviving nephew back from the dead and the political advantages of recognizing him and aiding his cause have been widely debated and discussed by academics. Clearly as a Plantagenet princess and a woman who had lost all the male members of her own family in a succession of traumatic events she had many personal as well as political reasons to support a pretender. She had already backed Lambert Simnell’s conspiracy and was implacable in her disdain and hatred for Tudor’s regime across the sea. The appearance of a young man who was said to resemble her dear brother, who came to her at her court in Malines with open hands and offered himself as a figurehead for her ambitions was more than welcome but there was always more than the pragmatic about Margaret’s response to the newly revived Richard of York. Wroe reserves some of her best writing and most telling insights for Margaret. Her sadness matches the image of Richard himself.

Margaret kneels in devotion before the risen Christ

Margaret kneels in devotion before the risen Christ

Wroe describes Margaret through the vehicle of her book of hours, we can see the image of Margaret kneeling before the risen Christ as he displays the proof of his wounds, she notices tiny details like the pigment worn away by Margaret’s lips as she reverently kissed the page near Christ’s head during long, silent hours of contemplation and pious devotion but the implication is that Margaret was praying for just such a miracle as the sudden appearance of a lost prince of her blood. She is presented as a woman denied motherhood who took in her husband’s daughter and raised her with love. She is haunted by the fate of her family; a flickering light at the margins of real power still shining dimly before the altar of the ruined House of York like a votive offering. While she would gladly offer support for any rebellion against Henry VII and offer shelter to fleeing Yorkists there was something more to her relationship with the man who convinced her of his identity by sharing intimate memories of shared experiences during her visit to England when he was a little boy as well as showing her certain marks on his body which she knew had also been present on the soft skin of the little prince she had imagined was dead and decomposing all those long years. There is a longing in this Margaret that is hard not to empathize with. Wroe quotes from the letter which Margaret wrote to Isabella and Ferdinand full of fervour and wonder over her discovery. There is a palpable sense of her initial dis-belief and subsequent joy when she recognized him and when Isabella responded with a dose of cold reason and doubt, Margaret seems personally wounded and says she won’t write again about him. She has exposed herself and something precious and having failed to convince Isabella she wants to hide him away again and shut her ears to any opposition.

Although throughout the account of his life there are plenty of people who failed to see the prince in the man there were also equally many who did accept him and appear to recognize something ‘kingly’ in his appearance, bearing, manners and speech. This is the most niggling aspect of the mystery. Nobility was concerned with outward show – to look like a prince by the clothes you wore, the way you walked, how you spoke and stood and your manners as well as the qualities you demonstrated and Margaret’s prince had all this at his fingertips. We are asked whether the son of a Tournai boatman could ever have managed to carry off such a level of sophisticated deception at a relatively young age and without access to the best experts in royal etiquette and speech making until he had already convinced people he should be among the great and good of Europe? Why was his English so good and his hand writing so assured? Where had he picked all the information up from about the marks on Richard’s body or the names of his servants etc…?

What about the personal relationship with Maximilian, King of the Romans and James IV of Scotland. Both monarchs not only accepted his usefulness to them but seemed to genuinely welcome him as an equal and like him as a friend. He was their ‘cousin’, the general address for any other member of the grand family of co-mingled European royal blood. He went with Maximilian’s retinue to the funeral of Frederick III in Vienna and was furnished and arrayed as a prince of the blood throughout. When he went to Scotland King James did more than was necessary to accommodate a ‘pretender’, giving him a monthly allowance and presents but most importantly arranging his marriage to Lady Catherine Gordon whose family were very well-connected to the king himself and who also presumably were sufficiently convinced of his claim to hand over their daughter to his care or risk all on the chance of success.

Henry Tudor

Henry Tudor

In parallel with the extra-ordinary efforts to construct the resurrected persona of Prince Richard there were the equaling extra-ordinary machinations of Henry Tudor to create the counter-legend of Perkin Warbeck. Henry was at great pains throughout this period to appear unconcerned by the threat posed by the ‘feigned boy’. He belittled him, he dismissed him and sent agents to undermine his account with rival stories of the boatman’s son from Tournai just as he had sent agents before Bosworth to whisper the words ‘tyrant and child-killer’ about Richard III to any ears who would receive them. Henry took the threat very seriously indeed and spent a fortune on trying to counter-act him. It did cause further delays to the negotiation of the marriage of his son Arthur to the daughter of Isabella and Ferdinand who used the threat posed to Henry’s regime as leverage. It assisted James IV of Scotland in harrying away at the northern border, it provided another focus for discontented nobles in England and there were always discontented lords and those even within Henry’s own circle who would betray their master for the hope of someone more generous, more eager to reward and more grateful for their own elevation. Henry was surprised at some who took up the cause.

There has always been the suggestion that Henry wasn’t completely sure who ‘the boy’ really was. For all the hooded eyed watchfulness, the jewels and the fine clothes and the still regality which Henry displayed to the outside world he was a constructed king himself. He was never born to sit on a throne and he knew it. He was no match for Edward IV’s brand of sun-like kingship, no great warrior god descended to earth. His charm was carefully orchestrated, not the kingly slap on the shoulder and easy charisma of his Yorkist predecessor. His famed stillness was as much a cover for inadequacy as assurance. Stillness gave him time to assess and think, it stopped him from betraying his doubts and fears and threw people off balance which gave him the advantage when negotiations began. Of course Henry might have known what happened to the sons of Edward IV. His mother and step-father were thigh deep in intrigue during the two brief years of Richard III’s reign and his own court historian openly admitted that his mother, Margaret Beaufort, had been overjoyed at the news of their alleged demise because it opened the way for her own son’s ambitions. The rumours of their deaths seem to have come to Henry with Bishop John Morton of Ely, who informed the Duke of Buckngham or was informed by him of their murder and after having turned Buckingham into a rebel fled to Henry in his exile across the narrow sea.  Henry benefited from the news of their deaths immediately because it turned loyal Yorkists against Richard III and made his seizure of the throne seem a sinister precursor to regicide, it allowed him to pledge to marry their sister, Elizabeth of York and make her his queen should he be successful which would have been pointless if her two brothers lived with a better claim than his own. It removed two more impediments to his ambitions. He couldn’t get French backing for an invasion if they were likely to be liberated and set up against him but the rumour of their deaths which he circulated far and wide played into his hands. His French backers may still have had their doubts about the truth of these accounts but it made him worth a punt if it disrupted Richard’s regime. He knew as much as anyone that one man’s rightful king was another’s upstart pretender because he had been ‘Henry Tydder, sometime Duke of Richmond’ himself and as far from real power as this youth was now despite his ‘rightful claim’.

The endgame was, some would say, inevitable. The support didn’t materialize, it melted away leaving ‘Richard of York’ making a run for the coast and sanctuary at Beaulieu. Henry had his man having made sure his agents watched the coast and an established track record of breaking the laws of sanctuary when it suited him in just as spectacular a way as Richard of Gloucester had done when he took Richard of York from sanctuary at Westminster all those years before in the Spring of 1483. Strangely history seems more forgiving of Henry on this score but if the young man who sought sanctuary then at Beaulieu had any memory of a previous experience of being pulled away from the protection afforded by holy church he was surely in a desperate mood when he was brought before the king who he had tried to depose. You get the impression when reading about ‘Perkin’ that he somehow hadn’t really thought it all through. He was happier being the prince in exile than he was in actually making good that claim. The Scottish raid into England left him shaken and distraught at the treatment of ‘his people’ to the extent that it was the beginning of the end of his friendship with King James. He wasn’t a fighter at all. The impression left of him is one of gentleness and need. His love letter to Catherine, if written by himself, is extremely eloquent and touchingly open. He was a prince of hearts and minds who wanted ‘his people’ to love him and shower him with white roses. He doesn’t appear as a chancer or strike you as an opportunist. Indeed his lack of foresight or understanding of how the power brokers around him were manipulating him for their own self interest reinforces the first impression of his vulnerability. He remained a pawn throughout even when he was sleeping under embroidered canopies and eating off silver platters and I find myself asking the same questions: Why risk his life chasing a chimera when the stakes were so high and the end seemed so inevitable? Why believe that if the people didn’t rise up in Northumberland or in Ireland that they would in Cornwall? Why trustingly put your head into the noose for the sake of a few years of high living and a beautiful, noble lady by your side when you might live in obscurity and die an old man in your own bed?

In his confession he seems to give up everything so easily, like an costume to be put aside, perhaps even with a sense of relief. He presented himself as lead by others, almost compelled against his will to be their puppet. He was trying to save his life and he had a wife and baby son to think about. There is controversy over the description of his face being altered or dis-figured which may imply that he was hurt whilst in custody or even deliberately mutilated to end all comparisons or that his true nature was exposed at last and any previous likeness to Edward IV was now cast off. We will probably never know the truth of it but like many historical legends there is a part of you that hopes to turn the final page and find that, in this telling at least, he escaped his captors and achieved freedom rather than ending on the gallows. It seems such a waste of a beautiful young man’s life who clearly had the ability to make a way for himself in the world that was less fraught with intrigue and danger.

It is often said that Edward of Warwick was the sacrificial victim required for the marriage of Arthur and Catherine of Aragon to take place and his innocent blood was the curse laid on their union but I think Perkin’s execution was just as much part of the bargain too. Isabella and Ferdinand had made their own efforts to lure him to Spain in order to have him in their power and were unwilling to release Catherine until he was eliminated and many of his letters have survived in the Spanish State archive which attests to their interest in him. Perhaps Perkin’s ghost haunted the other Duke of York who would grow to be Henry VIII as much as Warwick’s haunted Arthur’s marriage bed.