Tuesday, 26 June 2012

The Execution of the Earl of Oxford and his son.

In theory, Magna Carta had guaranteed that peers would always be tried by their peers. However, there were exceptions to this, certainly in the fifteenth century. One day when I have more leisure I will discuss the relevant precedents - there are quite a number and it would make for a long and (possibly) tedious post. Anyway, the theory was that peers would be tried by their peers - let us say for convenience this means before the House of Lords, making use of Common Law procedures. I should add though that the peer being tried was not allowed to have a counsel to present his case, and nor was he given advance notice of the nature of the prosecution case or who the witnesses (if any) would be. So we are not talking about what the 21st Century would call a fair trial. The peer would have to answer the charges on his own wit, and, to be frank, if matters had got this far his chances of acquittal were slim. Off hand I can only think of one fifteenth century peer who was acquitted - Northumberland in 1403, when he was pronounced guilty only of trespass. The circumstances were particular. Henry IV's political position was weak, and he had many enemies among the peers. He made sure thereafter that no peer received a trial before Parliament during the rest of his reign.

Although Richard II had empowered his Constable and Marshal to 'arrest and chastise all traitors' the actual use of the Constable's court for this purpose was rare up until the Yorkist period. The most common use of the court was in the immediate aftermath of a battle, where it was felt that summary justice was appropriate. The Constable's Court did not use Common Law, but rather the Roman or Civil Law. Under this system it was the duty of the judge to examine the 'facts' and decide on the guilt or innocence of the party without reference to a jury. Of course, the Constable (and/or Marshal) was normally, if not invariably, a peer, so in that sense the accused still received 'trial by his peers', but not, I think, in the sense originally intended. Roman or Civil Law took much less cognisance of individual rights and was more about enforcing the power of the sovereign. This was never more true than in treason cases.

Let us be quite frank. The Constable's Court was a kangaroo court. You had about as much chance of being acquitted as you had of flying to the moon. Just because it was called 'a court' it does not mean it was anything that people living in a modern democracy would recognise as such. It was a formalised lynching party.

Now, in the immediate aftermath of a battle, where no one could sensibly deny that Lord X had made war upon the King, this was maybe no big deal, away from those more concerned with theoretical rights than practicalities. But to use it in other circumstances was harsh and novel.

To discuss the fate of the Earl of Oxford, we must return briefly to 1462 when, as you may remember, Margaret of Anjou was in France planning an invasion of England. She wrote to Oxford and Oxford wrote back. Unfortunately for them both (but particularly for Oxford) Yorkist Intelligence intercepted the letters, opened them for inspection and copying, and then allowed them to proceed. Yes folks, there really was a Yorkist Intelligence Service, though it was not officially known as such! Espionage and the monitoring of individuals for possible subversive action was another thing not invented by the Tudors.

The Government waited until details of Margaret's landing were revealed by the correspondence, and then John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester - the Constable - aided by Lords Ferrers and Herbert arrested the alleged conspirators, namely Oxford, his eldest son, Aubrey de Vere, Sir Thomas Tuddenham, Sir John Montgomery and Sir William Tyrrell. All were promptly tried by Worcester in his 'Constable's Court' - Ross says 'speedily convicted'. Arrested on 12th February, the last of them died on Tower Hill on 26th February.

Now, there had not been a battle and nor was there any immediate danger to justify this haste. Oxford at least ought to have been tried by the House of Lords, and there is really no cogent reason why he could not have been held in the Tower until they were assembled. The 'process' - if it can be so dignified - was unprecedented in a case of conspiracy, and it's a neat question whether Oxford's dealings actually constituted treason. (Under Henry VIII they certainly would have done, but the law of treason in 1462 was much more tightly drawn.)

In effect, Oxford was 'murdered'. But I have never come across anyone calling Edward IV a murderer on his behalf.

Oxford's younger son, John de Vere, was eventually allowed to inherit the title, and he married one of Warwick's numerous sisters. The treatment of his father and brother turned him into a lifelong 'Lancastrian' and despite various escapades he was able to survive to fight for Henry Tudor at Bosworth.

Monday, 25 June 2012

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, part 6

As an aside, I notice from the site statistics that more people from the USA and Russia read this blog than do those from the UK. Anyway, wherever you are from, you are very welcome!

Montagu conferred with Warwick at York, but the Great Man evidently decided that his younger bro. was more than capable of dealing with Somerset and his small force. However, he reinforced Montagu with Lords Greystoke and Willoughby. These men were both former Lancastrians - but then again, who wasn't? They were to prove faithful to their new allegiance, though this may have been more to Neville than to York.

Montagu returned to Newcastle, and there received intelligence that Somerset was near Hexham, some way off to the west towards Carlisle. A rapid march discovered the enemy camp, and after placing some of his men so as to cut off any possible retreat, John Neville launched a fierce attack. (15 May 1464.) The fighting did not last long, and the Lancastrian leaders were almost all captured or killed. Somerset himself was executed without further ado, on the battlefield itself. There does not appear to have been even a rudimentary trial for him or any of the others - matters had gone beyond such niceties.

Lord Hungerford and several knights were beheaded in Newcastle. Two more knights suffered at Middleham, and a whole batch were kept until Edward IV could reach York and executed in his presence. (26 May.)

Among those who did get away were Somerset's brothers, Edmund and John. They eventually managed to secure safe refuge in Burgundy, where they were made welcome by Duke Charles.

As for Henry VI, he had been left in Bywell Castle. Hearing the result of the battle he wisely made himself scarce, making his way over many miles of rough and high ground until he was eventually found wandering by a shepherd near Ravenglass in what is now Cumbria. The lord of the local castle (Muncaster) gave the king shelter, and Henry stayed there for some time. After such a formidable tramp the poor man was probably exhausted. He left the family his glass drinking bowl as a token of thanks and this may still be seen at the castle.

Oh, by the way, on 1 May 1464, while all this was going on, Edward IV found time to slip away and make a secret marriage with Elizabeth Woodville. If he was involved with Eleanor Butler he was obviously no longer interested in that lady. The political aspects of the marriage were now irrelevant. Is the timing of Edward's Woodville marriage just a coincidence? Maybe. There is no way to prove the matter one way or the other.

Next post will be about the execution of the Earl of Oxford and his son. Which, if critics of Richard III wish to be consistent, they will be compelled to declare murder. But strangely no one has ever called Edward a murderer on this account...

Thursday, 21 June 2012

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, part 5

As the months slipped by at Holt or Chirk or both, Somerset had ample opportunity to consider his position. First, he had effectively been rusticated, which to a courtier's mind meant he was out of favour. Next, he was located in an area where the local populace were notably restive. (Not being familiar with this part of the world he may not have realised that this was pretty much par for the course for Chester and North Wales, and had been for centuries.) We can probably take it as read that he came across some Welshmen of name who were still hot for Lancaster. He may have thought on the fact that Harlech Castle was still holding out against the Yorkists, while in the North, of course, the Lancastrians were back in charge of several castles and Henry VI himself was back on English soil.

To do nothing was a risk - King Edward might have no further use for him, and in that event his future in Yorkist England would be bleak. He had many obvious enemies, including at least one or two who were exceptionally powerful. To turn his coat again also had its risks, obviously. Unless he was unusually obtuse, Somerset must have realised that - in the present circumstances - a Lancastrian restoration was a tall order. He may still have hoped that Queen Margaret would win the support of Louis XI. (In point of fact Louis had already refused to give any aid whatsoever, and Margaret was reduced to living (with her few followers) on the small amount of money her impoverished father could spare her.)

Anyway, round about Christmas 1463 Somerset departed from Wales in some haste, accompanied by a small party of followers (who may well have included his brothers Edmund - recently released from the Tower - and John of whom practically nothing is known.) After some hair-raising adventures, including one incident where Somerset was almost arrested, they eventually reached Bamburgh and made their submission to Henry VI. King Henry was doubtless very pleased to see them, as he badly needed every man he could muster. A relatively competent general like Somerset must have seemed like a Godsend.

Somerset did not sit around, but began to take such active measures as a man with very few soldiers at his disposal could. In April 1464 he attempted an ambush on John Neville, Lord Montagu, who was on his way to Newcastle to escort some Scottish envoys to York, where they were scheduled to hold peace negotiations with the Neville brothers. There was a fight, but Montagu cut his way through to Newcastle, where he promptly recruited a small force and set out to destroy Somerset. The 'armies' met at Hedgeley Moor near Morpeth on 25 April. Montagu attacked at once and Sir Ralph Percy was killed; however Somerset and the majority of men fled to higher ground and Montagu decided it was too risky to pursue with his small number of men. So he returned to Newcastle, picked up the Scots, and made his way back to York to consult with his brothers about the next step.

Monday, 18 June 2012

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, part 4.

In the early summer of 1463, Sir Ralph Percy reverted to his former Lancastrian loyalties and surrendered Bamburgh and Dunstanburgh to the Scottish/Lancastrian allies. In its way, trusting Ralph Percy with this responsibility had been as big a gamble as trusting Somerset, but it may have been the case that he was the only practical option in this neck of the woods, where the Percy name was still important.

Perhaps more surprising was the decision of Sir Ralph Grey to hand over Alnwick to the enemy. Grey had been regarded as a committed 'Yorkist' and was indeed grandson to the Grey executed with Cambridge at Southampton in 1415.

Warwick and Montagu were immediately instructed to mobilise their forces in the north - Warwick had been in London for the Parliament and had to make a long journey. Edward meanwhile concluded the Parliament without any undue haste and moved to Northampton, where he planned a muster.

Somerset was very much in his company - but the men of Northampton remembered the damage to their town caused by the Lancastrian armies a few years before, and rioted against the duke, even though he was in King Edward's proximity and surrounded by the King's guards. Edward had to break up the 'scuffle' with his own hands, rescue Somerset and threaten the rioters with a swift hanging if they did not disperse. The angry citizens retreated to their homes, and Somerset was saved.

However, Edward decided that he could no longer be kept about his person while emotions were so high against him. He sent Somerset (with a suitable guard) off to North Wales. Accounts differ as to whether it was to Chirk or Holt. I suspect the latter as the Duke of Norfolk was established there, with the difficult task of keeping order among some fairly restless local punters. This Norfolk was not the one who fought at Towton, but his young son, an individual who was always to prove a loyal Yorkist, albeit not a particularly capable one. He was probably employed at Holt as he was the only magnate available for the task with lands in the strategic area, not because of his great ability. But his wife, Elizabeth Talbot, was first cousin of Somerset and of course, sister to the legendary Lady Eleanor Talbot! I believe Somerset was sent to stay 'with family'. Given that the area was riven with Lancastrian dissent, it was not an obvious place to send someone Edward suspected might choose to defect. This leads me to think that Edward still had faith in Somerset.

The Nevilles meanwhile relieved Norham Castle and Newcastle, but were not in a position to recapture the lost castles. In August Margaret of Anjou and a small party set off for France again, hoping to secure more aid from King Louis. Whatever faults Queen Margaret had, no one could accuse her of being a pessimist.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, part 3

Lest it be forgotten, this Somerset was the Somerset who had commanded the Lancastrian forces at Wakefield and Towton and was thus (arguably) responsible for the deaths of (among others) Salisbury (Warwick's dad and Edward's uncle), Rutland (Edward's brother and Warwick's cousin) and Richard, Duke of York (Edward's dad and Warwick's uncle.) He had been (since at least first St. Albans) as big an enemy of the Yorkist cause as anyone you can name, including Margaret of Anjou. So on the face of it, it's hard to understand why Edward extended favour to him, when someone like Jasper Tudor (who if no better was certainly no worse) was told to pick up his bag and walk.

First, the basic reason. It was part of the deal to capture Bamburgh, quickly and with minimum expense. OK, that accounts for the pardon, and maybe the restoration of land, but not the favour. Even Warwick might have gone along with this, out of sheer practicality.

Second, the politics. Somerset was a key Lancastrian player. More important than any other single noble. It was at least arguable that if could be persuaded to make a permanent defection, the wars would be over. This may well have been Edward's calculation.

Third, the personal. It is my suspicion (I have no proof!) that Edward's involvement with Somerset's cousin, Lady Eleanor Talbot, was part of the mix. Edward may have thought that there was potential to win over not only Somerset but also the Talbots, an important 'Lancastrian' family via this route. Apart from this, Somerset seems to have been an urbane individual, and was possibly quite likeable on a personal level. He and Edward had a fair bit in common, having commanded armies at a relatively young age - maybe they compared notes?

Anyway, it is an undoubted fact that Edward showed Somerset marked favour. He shared his bed with him - this by no means implies a sexual involvement in the context of the time, but it was an exceptional sign of favour and trust. He hunted with Somerset. He placed Somerset in charge of his guard.

Warwick and Montagu (and probably others) were unhappy with this. First, because potentially more favour for Somerset would mean less for them, given there is only ever so much patronage to go round. Secondly they feared Somerset might try to murder Edward - he certainly had adequate opportunity. They may well have felt that Edward's treatment of Somerset was naive. (Yet if it was, it was exceptional. Edward, even as a young man, was far from naive and more than capable of being ruthless. As I hope to explore shortly with a post about the execution of Oxford and his son.)

In the next post I shall try to explain how this all went 'orribly wrong.

Henry Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, part 2

When Margaret landed her troops managed to capture Alnwick Castle, but attempts to recruit locally were not particularly successful. The local 'power' was the Percy family, but they had been badly mauled at Towton, to say the least, and their supporters were naturally wary of sticking their heads in the noose. Eventually news reached the Queen that King Edward was on his way with a substantial army, and she and her followers took to ship again, apparently with the intention of landing at Scots-held Berwick. Unfortunately (from a Lancastrian point of view anyway) storms blew up and the ships were scattered.

Margaret and de Breze did manage to reach Berwick (eventually, in half-drowned condition) but many of their followers fell victim to the storms and the local Yorkist supporters. Most of the advantage gained by going to France and cutting an expensive deal with Louis XI had now been lost, and the Scots remained somewhat lukewarm allies.

There were however some castles still in the hands of the Lancastrians. Notably the newly-captured Alnwick, Dunstanburgh and Bamburgh. Dunstanburgh was Duchy of Lancaster property, but not even John of Gaunt had lived there - it was, at best, a military fortress, not a mansion. Alnwick and Bamburgh, as former Percy residences, may have been a tad more comfortable. Anyway, most of the remaining Lancastrians garrisoned these strongpoints, with Somerset in charge at Bamburgh.

It was now of course the dead of winter. Queen Margaret was safe in Scotland, and from there a relieving force, headed by de Breze and the Earl of Angus, was prepared. Angus was (at least by the standards of the time) a very old man. He had actually fought at Homildon Hill in 1402, and been captured by Hotspur's army!

Meanwhile, Edward IV fell ill with measles and had to go to bed at Durham - who with is not recorded. This left Warwick in overall charge, and he promptly set sieges around the various Lancastrian castles. The potential arrival of a Scottish army did however make the Yorkist attitude a little more flexible than usual, and generous terms were offered for surrender, including the reversal of attainders. Those in Bamburgh (including Somerset) almost bit Warwick's hand off in their eagerness to accept. (26 December 1462). Dunstanburgh hauled down its flag next day. Alnwick proved somewhat tougher, as the garrison there had somehow got wind that relief was on its way. The siege broke on 6 January, and Lord Hungerford and the other die-hards got away to the Scots. However Angus decided enough was enough and went home without fighting, leaving the Yorkists free to take the castle all over again.

The Lancastrians who surrendered were in no case executed. Dr Morton simply went his way, eventually back to Queen Margaret. Jasper Tudor was also apparently given to understand that he was not welcome, and allowed to depart. On the other hand Somerset was made welcome. King Edward restored his estates and treated him with a degree of favour that was to draw complaints from the Neville brothers. I shall go into more detail in the next post.