To celebrate the new year, I’ve thrown caution to the winds and set my imagination free to recount a purely invented scenario. It concerns one
of the most baffling incidents of the Richard III story: the plot that resulted in the execution of William, Lord Hastings.
First let me run
through the factual circumstances of the incident itself. We’ve had far too much smoke and mirrors already. Forget Tudor stories of witchcraft and withered arms; forget the small-talk of strawberries suddenly transmogrified into murderous fury;
forget convenient self-incrimination provided by go-betweens. Colourful as these devices are, any creative writer will recognize them as classic misdirection. They’re calculated to distract from the pretence at the heart of the Tudor fabrication: that
a Protector of the Realm, a mere five weeks into his appointment, could get away with unprovoked daylight murder of a peer in the middle of London, in front of witnesses, and still retain the complete confidence of the King’s Council and the Three Estates
of Parliament who then collectively elected him King of England.
By contrast, there is a credible, gold standard, on-the-spot report, written
in 1483, and available to us since the 1930s. If only it had been known 400 years earlier, all that Tudor fiction might have been exposed (or maybe the document would have been destroyed along with so much else, who knows?). Anyway, we have it now and we ignore
it at our peril. It was provided by the Italian cleric Dominic Mancini who was in London at the time, as an agent for the French court, and reporting within a few months of the event. Although not present himself, he would have gleaned information immediately.
So, stripped of editorial opinion,* and translated from his original words, Mancini’s report provides the following information:
was executed for a treasonable attempt on Richard’s life, having brought hidden weapons into a meeting so that he could launch a surprise attack on his victim.
2. Two other influential ringleaders were arrested with him for the same offence, but being in holy orders they escaped with their lives thanks to Benefit of Clergy. One was Archbishop Rotherham, a man of authority and ability; the
other was Bishop Morton, a man of great resource and daring, with a career in party intrigue dating back at least twenty years to the Lancastrian era of Henry VI (mark those words).
3. These men were reported to have been assembling together previously in each others’ houses.
The incident took place at about 10.00 a.m. at a meeting in the Tower of London, several other witnesses being present.
Men at arms, stationed nearby, were summoned by Richard upon his cry of 'ambush'.
6. A public proclamation to the above effect was issued
7. Richard at the time had made no claim on the throne.
*I feel I need to add that in Mancini's opinion the charge of treason was a 'false pretext', but it should be noted that this visiting Italian was not qualified to pass judgement on the treason
laws of England. By contrast it was Richard's special prerogative, as High Constable of England, to try the crime of treason in his own Constable's Court, to pronounce on guilt and to pass sentence without the possibility of appeal. The evidence for this appears
in my recent book on the offices of Protector and Constable.
We have a couple of other facts provided by the Crowland Chronicle, written following Richard’s death some two years later. The author expostulates over the beheading and arrests, on which he spends many words
of personal opinion and judgement. But it’s significant that he provides very little factual detail, especially compared to Mancini. From what he
writes, it is clear that he was no more present in the Tower than the Italian was. Let us again strip away editorial opinion and look at the chronicle’s two relevant facts:
1. The meeting was a Council meeting called for 13 June.
2. Council attendance had been divided in advance
(by the Protector) so that one group met at Westminster and another at the Tower. I shall examine this insinuation that it was Richard who laid the trap, which should be compared with Mancini’s comment that his cry of ‘ambush’ was prearranged.
To complete the preliminary scene-setting, it hardly needs re-stating that from early May 1483 the Protector and Council represented the legally constituted
government of England during the king’s minority. We have no eyewitness account that contradicts the facts officially announced, and recorded by Mancini, i.e. that Hastings was the aggressor in a treasonable assassination attempt. Nevertheless it is
glaringly obvious that this treasonous attack was early on parlayed into entrapment of blameless individuals by the wicked Lord Protector. Even when the aggression by the conspirators is admitted, it is sometimes claimed that the plot to assassinate Richard
could not have been treason because they were acting ‘to protect Edward V’. Any such motive belongs purely in the realm of speculation, and against it must be set Mancini’s testimony that Richard at this time had made no move against the
king or his crown.
Working with these background facts, I have my own ideas of what the conspirators had in mind. And it had everything to do
with why they chose to attack Richard at the Tower of London. My imagined scenario starts with the question of motive. They may have had varied personal goals, but I see it as an attempted coup d’état by a disaffected group who
agreed in that they saw themselves slighted, and their lucrative status sidelined, by the incoming Protector’s charmed circle. All had hitherto enjoyed influential roles within the court and the Prince of Wales’s council, and their collective strategy
was a familiar one: to encircle the underage king and exert power through him. All it required was to eliminate the Protector.
A. Hastings had
found himself yesterday’s man, losing his valuable royal influence while the young Duke of Buckingham, busily collecting offices and rewards, now had the ear of Richard in the same way that Hastings had once enjoyed the ear of Edward IV.
B. Archbishop Rotherham, a protégé of the Woodville queen’s family, had lost his office of Chancellor to Bishop John Russell, an extremely
able candidate by all accounts. Like many others, Rotherham could no longer look for patronage to the Woodvilles, now absconded, disgraced and excluded from government after their failed attempt to oust Richard.
C. The demonstrated long game of Bishop John Morton, that supreme political operator, certainly centred on grasping any opportunity for subversion in the interests of his Lancastrian patron,
Lady Margaret Beaufort, and her son Henry Tudor. Ambition is a far more credible motive than supposedly tender feelings for Edward IV’s heir, and it’s worth reflecting that Morton's preferred patrons created him both Archbishop of Canterbury and
Having learned that Hastings, Rotherham and Morton were meeting together, Richard was concerned enough to write to his northern supporters,
a few days before the Hastings attack, requesting armed support. It would not have been a great tactic to suggest threats emanating from inner-circle councillors and clerics, especially if he didn’t know precisely who was involved, so he named his opponents
as the usual suspects: the Woodvilles. In subsequent centuries suspects would have been picked off one by one with the knock on the door in the small hours of the morning, but we know of no arrests in the days leading up to 13 June. In order to submit them
to the full force of justice, I conclude that Richard needed the conspirators to commit an overt act of aggression. So he and his aides would have been on full alert waiting for someone to show their hand. The key would then be to play along, ready to counteract
any move when it came.
This is why Richard would not have been the one to split the Council into two groups. He wouldn’t
want anything out of the ordinary to tip off his opponents that he was forewarned. By my calculation it was the Hastings group whose plan of attack, as recounted by Mancini, required them to have Richard attend a meeting that was smaller than usual,
and peopled as far as possible by their own supporters. A small group in a small room, rather than a large council-chamber. We don’t know anything about the agendas or purposes of particular Council meetings, and we can safely ignore misinformation by
Tudor writers. But we do know preparations were well in hand at this time for Edward V’s forthcoming coronation. Although the Crown Jewels were kept at Westminster Abbey, much of the State Regalia was held at the Tower of London; so an examination of
long-disused regalia, preparatory to formal approval by the king, might well have provided the excuse for a high-ranking select committee meeting at the Tower. Meanwhile Chancellor Russell’s group could be making arrangements with Abbot Esteney to take
an inventory of the priceless jewels at Westminster.
This is just a random idea – there could have been any number of excuses for
a division of the Council. Richard would agree innocently and plan accordingly. As a tactician he would have sized up the likelihood that this was to be the chosen moment. He was a great believer in the pre-emptive strike. All he needed to do was wait until
all were assembled, meanwhile having loyal men stationed nearby, armed and listening to respond to his call. Then he would enter the room and present himself as a target.
I’ve covered motive, means and opportunity, but the most difficult thing about history is to figure out what was intended compared to what actually panned out. For example: if we didn’t know it was true, we would surely
disbelieve that Julius Caesar’s opponents assassinated him personally and publicly on the steps of the senate. What were they thinking?! In terms of politics (and it’s politics that particularly interest me) a decision depends not only on what
to do, but what you can get away with: who is for you, who against, and who will support the winning side. Hastings and his co-conspirators would have made their judgements accordingly, and this brings me to the question of why two clerics had to be involved.
We know there were six or seven arrests – quite possibly more – and quite possibly others were never caught. But why would Hastings, the old
war-horse, involve men of the cloth like Morton and Rotherham in an assassination attempt, and how were they recruited? This last question is answered in the person of Morton, whose skills as a life-long political operator were reported even by the foreigner
Mancini (remember Morton’s later recruitment of Buckingham to the Tudor cause!). He was just the man to bring in an already disgruntled Rotherham. And why? The aim was to bolster the group’s credibility in the plan of action to be followed once
Richard was despatched.
To be secret, sudden and swift was the key. Hastings would have stationed a number of retainers to back up his attack,
unaware of course that Richard had quietly set his own men on the alert. The take-over must be instant, replacing the Protector’s leading position in the government. This meant gaining immediate control of the king. Which explains why the fatal encounter
HAD to take place at the Tower. If they’d done it anywhere else (despite the misdirection of Tudor writers) they’d have had no access to the king, and how would they have managed the aftermath? So the scheme was to take swift action at the
Tower, while the rest of the Council was elsewhere, leaving no one any chance to object. A group headed by the Archbishop of York and Bishop of Ely, moving swiftly and commandingly, had the authority to sweep all before them unchallenged as they proceeded
to the royal apartments ... and likewise the presence of leading prelates would reassure Edward V right away that he need fear no plot against his own life. If any guards did ask questions, a plausible excuse was that they were hurrying to ensure the king’s
person was still safe – something the Tower guards would accept and probably assist in.
The plan rested on a vacuum being left after Richard
was removed, with little option but to accept the new regime – one that strongly resembled the state of play before the protectorate had been established. It might have worked; but, as with the Woodvilles’ earlier attempted coup, Richard
was clever enough to prevent it. And because he escaped with his life while punishing the perpetrators, his enemies were able to twist the events to portray him as the guilty party.