Sunday, 13 April 2008

The death of Thomas of Woodstock

After my brief ramblings into the 15th century, I think it's time to return to the basic chronology and consider the death of Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester. His murder, if you like. Though how exactly it differs from the 'private execution' of George Clarence I am not sure. Clarence is rarely described as being murdered, unless it's by someone trying to pin the deed on the future Richard III.

Gloucester had been roughly as big a thorn in Richard II's side as Clarence was to be in that of Edward IV. Indeed it appears that Gloucester and his chums briefly deposed Richard in 1387. Ah, but then they suddenly realised they had a problem! Who was to succeed him? We can be sure that Bolingbroke argued for his father, Gaunt, while it's a 1-5 shot that Woodstock thought that he, Woodstock, was best fitted for the job. The eventual solution was to restore Richard and keep very quiet about their little muddle.

As I mentioned earlier, it was originally suggested that Gloucester, Arundel and Warwick were plotting against Richard in 1396, and that their arrests were a response to this. Whether there was a plot or not, they were actually arraigned on the basis of their deeds during 1386-88. This was undoubtedly a tactical error on Richard's part - he would have been far wiser to follow (or rather anticipate) the Tudor method of plot invention. You know, torture the odd musician or so, get 'proof' they were intriguing with the French, or the Man in the Moon - that sort of thing. By cancelling the pardons he led a lot of people to believe that he was not to be trusted, not least the two former Appellants he had apparently forgiven, Henry Bolingbroke (now made Duke of Hereford for his pains) and Thomas Mowbray (created Duke of Norfolk).

Gloucester was removed to Calais in Mowbray's care, and as mentioned in an earlier post, no sooner did his case come up in Parliament than it was announced he was dead. He was promptly found guilty and forfeited.

Now, one must be cautious here, because what follows is based on testimony to Henry IV's Parliament, and is therefore not necessarily 100% kosher. Bolingbroke could lie for England when it suited him, and he wasn't above fiddling with records, either. However, it appears that Gloucester was not dead. Mowbray had got a confession from him, but not killed him as - presumably - Richard had ordered.

Here Edward of York - now Duke of Aumale, Lord Constable, and, by Richard's creation, 'King's brother' - takes a hand. A couple of his squires were sent over to Calais to have a word in Mowbray's ear, and to take part in Gloucester's death. It appears Woodstock was smothered, at Richard's order, but with the active involvement of both Edward and Mowbray.

This is not a pretty tale. Not the sort of thing one can imagine William Marshal approving. It's highly likely that Gloucester's surviving brothers, Lancaster and York, did not approve either. Yet I must balance this by saying that Richard's so-called 'tyranny' was limited. He did not go on a mass killing spree as the Appellants had done in 1389. He may have put the fear of God into people, but as a tyrant he was strictly minor-league.


melitzanis said...

Brian, I have enjoyed reading your alternative take on the reign of Richard II. It seems that you and Terry Jones are the only ones that are prepared to put his case. Have you ever thought about writing a factual book about this. There needs to be something to counteract the ones that are out Lancastrian

Brian said...

Thanks! I'm flattered, but I don't know how far I'd get, given that I am not a professional historian. I suppose I could write 'popular' history, as Geoffrey Richardson (and more lately Alison Weir) have done, but it isn't really my thing.

I do think Richard II is harshly judged by historians, although perhaps not quite as harshly as Edward II. One thing that they tend to miss is that he very nearly 'won'. If he'd found a way of eliminating Henry Bolingbroke, he might still have been unpopular, but he'd have been practically untouchable. Many of the features of his alleged 'tyranny' anticipated the 'reforms' of Edward IV and the Tudors, who tend to get credited as 'strong' monarchs - a 'good thing' apparently. In some ways he was a hundred years ahead of his time - maybe society wasn't ready for him?

One of my longer term projects is a novel about Richard II and Anne of Bohemia (with a working title This New Spring of Time) but whether it will ever appear I don't know at this stage. I need to get the R3 project out of the way first!