Friday, 21 February 2020

The wills of William Brandon, a Yorkist whose sons supported Henry Tudor

Chris Reay Connor shared details of one of the testators of the Society's Milles Wills Project at last year's study day: Sir William Brandon, grandfather of one Henry VIII's most famous courtiers.

(Charles Brandon - source Wikimedia Commons)

There are two wills of Sir William Brandon of Wangford (Suffolk) recorded in the registers of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury. The first was written on 9 June 1475 and originally recorded in the register ‘Milles’ as being granted probate on 13 July 1491 but this grant was subsequently invalidated (TNA, PROB 11/8/629); the second, recorded in register ‘Dogget’, was written on 4 March and 9 April 1491 and was granted probate on 17 November 1491 (TNA,  PROB 11/9/49).

William Brandon, born before 1430, had been  in the service of the Yorkist kings through his association with the dukes of Norfolk, rising to be a senior member of the council of John Mowbray, fourth duke of Norfolk.  Brandon was knighted at Tewkesbury by a grateful Edward IV and swore allegiance to young Prince Edward, the future Edward V, in 1471.  In 1475 he was contracted to travel to France with the royal forces, hence he wrote a will in June of that year.   This document is not a rushed affair. It is a long and considered listing of his lands and of his children and their bequests.  His sons are named as William, Robert and Thomas, and his daughters are Mary, Anne, Margaret the elder, Margaret the younger and Kateryne.  His wife, Elizabeth  née  Wingfield, is given  overall control and the bequests are fairly standard.   The English army returned safely and William returned to royal service.  The will was not needed at that time.  The second will, partly written in April 1491, is shorter, not least because his daughters are now married (or dead) and are not dependent (and indeed are not mentioned at all).  Only his son Robert receives anything; he is the principal legatee, with reversion to William’s wife, Elizabeth.  In fact three-quarters of the will is nuncupative (i.e. dictated), with an earlier date of 4 March 1491.  This portion has a detailed list of lands, all bequeathed to his wife. 

Their eldest son William Brandon, had been Henry Tudor’s standard bearer, and had died at Bosworth.  If he left a will, it has not been found yet.  He is recorded as being buried in the grave pits at Dadlington.  In July 1483 William senior had been present at the coronation of Richard III, but, despite marks of royal favour, his loyalty became suspect when two of his sons, William and Thomas, joined the rebellion of Henry Stafford, duke of Buckingham, in October that year. When the rising failed, William junior and Thomas fled to Brittany, where Henry Tudor was.   Some of William senior’s lands were seized on the king’s orders, but he secured a free pardon in March 1484.  By the end of that year he was out of favour again and sought sanctuary in the city of Gloucester, where he remained until Tudor became king.  He regained his lands and petitioned for the return of the office of Knight Marshall of the Marshalsea court, which he passed to his son Thomas, who was also at Bosworth with his brother but had survived. Thomas became a trusted and noted diplomat under the Tudors, dying in 1510.  He married but had no surviving children.  His brother Robert appears to have remained in Norfolk, married twice, but had no surviving children; he requested to be buried with his first wife, whilst his second wife was his executrix.  

William, the standard bearer, had married Elizabeth Bruyn, widow of Thomas Tyrrell of Heron (grandfather of James Tyrell).  William and Elizabeth had four sons and one daughter: William, Thomas, Robert and Charles, later duke of Suffolk, and Anne, who married twice.  Elizabeth Bruyn married for a third time, to William Mallory.  The children of the standard bearer were brought up within the Tudor household, and Charles became the most famous, passing down the Brandon blood through a Tudor alliance to Lady Jane Grey.

Thursday, 23 January 2020

Beeswax: Lighting the Medieval Church

Tacuinum Sanitatis, Lombardy, 
late 14th century (Biblioteca Casanatense, Rome)

Alexandra Sapoznik has recently published an article in the Economic History Review entitled ‘Bees in the medieval economy: Religious observance and the production, trade, and consumption of wax in England, c.1300–1555’. [EcHR November 2019]   As Sapoznik notes, in addition to lighting candles to mark each stage of the church’s year, and in particular during the celebrations of Christmas, the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary (2 February) and Easter, candles were used to mark every stage of life. ‘Candles were placed in infants’ hands when they were baptised, held by women when they were churched and when they married, carried before the Host when it was taken to visit the sick, placed around the body after death, taken with the body as it was carried to the grave.’  This made me think about one particular aspect of the Milles wills: many testators made bequests of lights (candles) in their parish church, or for torches or wax to ‘burn about their corpse’ at their funeral and subsequent commemorative services.  The candles would not burn down completely during these services and so what was left was often bequeathed for other purposes. 

The more expensive candles, tapers or torches were made of beeswax but torches in particular were often made of a cheaper mixture of tallow, wax and resin; however, some  testators specified wax to be used. For example, Isabel Stephens of the parish of St Michael Queenhithe (London) asked her executors purchase four new torches of wax to burn around her coffin during her funeral services; afterwards one torch was to placed on the high altar of St Michael’s church to burn at the elevation of the blessed Sacrament (that is, at the high point of the mass), two more on the altars of Jesus and of Our Lady in the same church, and the fourth was to go to the parish church of St Dunstan, Cheam (Surrey) where she was born. 

Sometimes the testator asked that the funeral torches or tapers were held by poor men, who were usually given some clothing, money or food in return.  John Mountfort, a priest in the Hereford area, was very specific: six tapers, each of 5 lbs of wax, and six torches, priced 6s each, were to be held by poor men. The six poor men holding the torches were to each have a black gown and hood and each of the poor men were to have 4d. 

Medieval churches had numerous statues of saints. Some testators might simply bequeath wax for various candles (lights) in their parish church. Margaret Brown of Stamford bequeathed 20 lbs of wax for the two lights in the choir, two lights in the chapel, one before the statue of St Anne, one before St Margaret and one before St Erasmus.

Sometimes burning candles were requested for a number of years, so they would need renewing. Seeing the candles burning would remind parishioners to pray for the soul of the person who had originally provided them. Usually executors were expected to pay for the candles out of the estate of the deceased; occasionally the source of funding was clearly stated.  Robert Hervy of Colchester bequeathed a light made of a pound of wax to burn before the image of Jesus in St Peter’s church, Colchester, for 7 years during divine service; furthermore four times a year the candle was to be made back up to one pound in weight.  The money for the wax was to be taken out of the rent paid for the house in North Street, inside the North Gate of Colchester, in which Thomas Slatoure was living, which Hervy had bought from John Clerke, the weaver. 

Interestingly there was also an element of recycling. New wax was often added to ‘old’ wax reused from candle ends held over from the churches’ own stock, or purchased from wax chandlers who were paid by the pound to make candles. One Milles will sheds light on this. John Meryk of Southwark had requested twelve torches to be used during his funeral and commemorations; afterwards six were to be used in the parish church of St Thomas; the other six were to be taken back to to the wax-chandler they were bought from, and he would pay for the waste a sum agreed between himself and Meryk’s executors.

Heather Falvey

Sunday, 3 November 2019

Coventry Guildhall Tapestry

On 27 September,  a number of Society members were present for a fascinating day exploring the tapestry at St Mary’s Guildhall in Coventry, organised by Tudor Coventry CIC and Medieval Coventry. This tapestry depicts a king and queen kneeling either side of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. There are an assortment of men behind the king, and women behind the queen and a row of saints above them. It was made in the early sixteenth century and was long thought to depict a Tudor court. However, Christian Liddy has argued that it depicts the mid fifteenth century when Coventry became the home of Henry VI’s court in the wake of Richard duke of York’s second protectorate.[1]

There has also been more recent speculation that one of the figures represents Richard III.[2] The character in question holds an item that has clearly been rewoven in an attempt to alter the image which looks to have been a snake originally. This has been interpreted as ‘an emblem of evil and deviousness’, according to an article on the guildhall website. The figure also holds a small item which has been identified as a coin and thus a symbol of Judas.

When the Society Conference was held in Coventry two years ago, member Fred Hepburn persuasively argued that the striking figure was much more likely to represent Richard duke of York than his son. Fred explained that the idea specifically of a ‘serpent of discord’ was popular in both mid-fifteenth and sixteenth-century literature and Richard duke of York would chronologically make more sense as an adult at the court of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Polydore Vergil, most likely writing as the tapestry was being designed, was clear that ‘this general disturbance [the Wars of the Roses] took its origin from Duke Richard of York’. The smaller object in the figure’s hand, Fred suggested, was actually a gambling die, emblematic of York’s risk taking. Under Henry VIII, who was rather more proud of his Yorkist lineage, it might have seemed politic to remove the serpent.

Fred was among the speakers again at Coventry this autumn, along with Jonathan Foyle discussing the iconography of the window above the tapestry (which definitely does depict Henry VI but in an unusually military fashion), Kate Giles explaining the context of guildhalls more widely, Maria Hayward investigating the making of the tapestry, Mika Takami reporting on it from a conservationist point of view and myself talking about Margaret of Anjou and Henry VI’s time in Coventry. The talks began with Mark Webb from Historic Coventry Trust giving the local historic context and David Starkey introducing the political context of the period in which the tapestry was made. It was an excellent opportunity for sharing ideas and has set up considerable further discussion.

It has long been recognised that the top central figure in the tapestry – justice enthroned - was a late addition, presumably replacing an earlier image of the Trinity, but few of us had noticed until Maria’s talk that a rosary seems to have been embroidered out on one of the women’s dresses. Yet the saints and the Virgin Mary were allowed to survive, unlike in so many churches. It really is a wonderful relic from the last years when such art could be made before the Reformation. Maria also pointed to banderoles in each corner of the tapestry (which I’ve never been able to make out in the poor light there) which appear to have the initials H and M on them, presumably for Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou.

Much debate centred on the dogs at the feet of some of the courtiers and the question of whether they might be talbots, which was the emblem of the earls of Shrewsbury, or, as a questioner from the floor proposed, Tudor/Richmond greyhounds, or merely domestic dogs. The male figure beside the dog has an ample purse which might have made him a candidate for identification as John Talbot, earl of Shrewsbury and Treasurer of England, if we could find a logical reason for him being so very prominent in the tapestry (Fred Hepburn suggested). If instead it is a Tudor emblem then it might depict Henry VII’s father, Edmund Tudor (as Jonathan Foyle was the first to point out). If so, might we start identifying the elderly man touching ‘Edmund’s’ shoulder as Owen Tudor? Then we might consider some of the possible parallel women as ancestresses of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York too: the very small figure near a white dog as Margaret Beaufort, more prominent women as the queen’s grandmothers. Or is it over ambitious to imagine sixteenth-century guildsmen wanting to weave so much specific history into their design? The debate will continue!

It is fair to say that not everyone was persuaded that the figure with the ‘serpent’ was Richard duke of York. One query was whether it was really a serpent at all or perhaps another rosary? Another was why put such a discordant figure in the tapestry in the beginning? Moreover, serpents could also be symbols of wisdom, something that might have seemed less obvious at a later date and so prompted the over-embroidery (an image of Elizabeth I currently hanging in Kenilworth castle clearly once held a serpent which has been painted over with a posy of flowers). What was clear in the final discussion is that none of the speakers thought it plausible that Richard III was depicted on the tapestry.

J L Laynesmith
Images provided by Mark Webb

Monday, 29 April 2019

Elizabeth Woodville as Plague Victim


Queens' College Cambridge Portrait 88 

There were several newspaper headlines last week along the lines of ‘White Queen died of plague, claims letter found in National Archives’. Their authors are drawing on an article in this month’s issue of Social History of Medicine by Euan Roger, who is a historian at The National Archives.[1] The newspaper articles online seem to have caused some confusion and scepticism on social media. So, having read Roger’s fascinating article, here’s what I think it might mean for understanding Elizabeth’s death and much-debated funeral.

The focus of Roger’s research was an early-sixteenth century codex from St George’s College, Windsor, containing regulations about quarantine for plague (really interesting stuff – but you’ll have to read the article if you want to know more!). In the course of this, he investigated Henry VIII’s exceptional anxiety about the plague. He picked up on an intriguing letter written by the Venetian ambassador, Andrea Badoer, in July 1511. The ambassador observed ‘the Queen-Widow, mother of the late King Edward, had died of plague, and the King was troubled’.[2]

No one who might answer the description of ‘queen-widow’ had died in 1511, or even remotely near that date. Hitherto, scholars who came across the curious reference seem not to have been interested in trying to unravel its mystery, until now. Euan Roger persuasively concluded that the ambassador’s remark was meant as an explanation for Henry VIII’s particular fear of the plague – the king knew (or, at least, believed) that a close relative had died of it. (Do check out the sources and logic for this in his article).

Elizabeth Woodville was not the only mother of a king Edward to have died within living memory. The most recent was Edward IV’s mother, Cecily duchess of York, whom some on Twitter have suggested might have been the subject of the ambassador’s remark. Cecily was indeed the woman most commonly referred to as the ‘mother of King Edward’. She died when Henry VIII was four, so he is unlikely to have remembered her in person. However, she must have been part of his sense of his family because she bequeathed him three Arras tapestries and many of her lands had passed into his possession as duke of York (which was his title before his elder brother’s death). At first sight Cecily seems a possible candidate, except that she was never a queen.

Cecily’s status was contentious. Her husband, Richard duke of York, had claimed that his right to the throne was superior to Henry VI’s. During the reigns of her sons Edward IV and Richard III, Cecily called herself ‘king’s mother and wife of the rightful heir to the thrones of England and France and lord of Ireland’. In Henry VII’s reign, however, it appears that she tactfully dropped much of this claim. She usually described her husband only as ‘the right noble prince Richard duke of York’. In so far as Henry VII had any blood right to the throne, it came from his relationship to Henry VI. Consequently, suggesting that Henry VI’s claim was false would not have played well with the Tudor family. So, it would make no sense for anyone at Henry VIII’s court to call Cecily ‘queen-widow’.

Moreover, what we know of Cecily’s death does not suggest that she was a plague victim. She was living in rural Berkhamsted which was a much less likely site for plague to strike than the congested capital. She was already 80 years old and the long preparation for her death reveals that it was not a hurried affair. On 1st April 1495 she began making her last testament. She did not finish it until 31st May, the very day of her death. On that day she sealed and signed the document. After her death, a papal indulgence was tied around her neck with a silk ribbon and her body was transported 60 miles for burial at Fotheringhay College.[3] This would have caused a serious contagion risk if she had died of plague.

The only other relevant mother of a king Edward was Elizabeth Woodville, mother of Edward V and wife of Edward IV. She had very definitely been a queen-widow. We might have expected the ambassador to call her the king (Henry VIII)’s grandmother, rather than the mother of his uncle. Nonetheless, the description was entirely accurate for Elizabeth Woodville. Elizabeth had died three years before Cecily. She was only in her early fifties and lived at Bermondsey Abbey, near the Thames in Southwark. This was a much more vulnerable location for the plague. Crucially, as Roger argues, her exceptionally low-key funeral has long been a matter of speculation.  If her hasty burial was a consequence of fears about plague infection, this would offer a new perspective on the event.

Elizabeth Woodville had composed her last testament on 10 April 1492, exactly nine years and one day after her husband, Edward IV’s, sudden death, ‘seeing the world so transitory and no creature certain when they shall depart from hence’ (TNA PROB 11/9). It seems from this line that she had no specific reason to expect that two months later she would be dead. In this testament, she requested that she be buried with Edward IV at Windsor, ‘without pomp entering or costly expenses done thereabout’.

A description of Elizabeth Woodville’s funeral has been preserved in a sixteenth-century herald’s book that is now in the British Library.[4] The author drew attention to the use of ‘old torches and torch ends’, tapers ‘of no great weight’, and a ‘low hearse, such as they use for the common people’. He also noted that several of the traditional solemn services were omitted and that the poor men holding torches had not been provided with black mourning wear. It is impossible to be sure whether the author’s emphasis on the minimal ceremony was meant as a criticism of her executors, a lament on her poverty or praise for her austere piety. However, his opening explanation suggests that it was the last. He had recorded that the queen wished to be taken by river to be buried at Windsor ‘in all goodly haste, without any worldly pomp’. Euan Roger’s investigation suggests that some elements of this simplicity were actually a result of anxious, rather than ‘goodly’, haste.

One of the most surprising aspects of the funeral is the fact that the body did not lie on the hearse throughout the ceremonies but was buried immediately on arrival at the castle ‘privily about 11 of the clock in the night’. Only one priest and one clerk had greeted the tiny party accompanying the body ‘privily through the little park’. This would entirely fit with a desire to avoid contagion from the plague. Intriguingly, however, there is no hint that the author of the description was himself aware of the cause of death which may suggest that, if she did die of plague, it was not entirely public knowledge at the time.

It is also worth noting that we do not seem to have any records of plague in London in 1492. Nonetheless, plague was endemic by this period to the extent that many sources seem not have considered it worth noting every small outbreak. Records for Oxford University indicate that the students would be evacuated each time plague struck, but sometimes only a couple of students were affected. Such evacuations occurred in both 1491 and 1493.[5] It is not improbable that a small outbreak occurred in London between these years.

Last week’s newspaper reports implied that the letter at the heart of the revelations had only just been discovered. The truth is actually more impressive – records that have been publicly available for decades can still yield surprising new information when examined by a historian who is asking new questions in the context of the appropriate background knowledge. An investigation into why a sixteenth-century king was so concerned about plague has indicated that Elizabeth Woodville’s family believed that she had died of that disease in 1492.

J L Laynesmith

[1] Euan C Roger , “‘To Be Shut Up’: New Evidence for the Development of Quarantine Regulations in Early-Tudor England”, Social History of Medicine,
Published: 11 April 2019
[2] Item come la Raina Vedova, fò madre dil Re Edoardo, erra morta da peste, et il Re era fastidiato. See
[3] Her will stated a preference for burial at Fotheringhay but acknowledged that this would be an expensive undertaking and allowed that the king might recommend she be buried elsewhere. Her relationship with her local church in Berkhamsted was close – in her will she left gifts to three incumbents as well as to the church itself – so it would have been the sensible alternative if she had actually died of plague. J. L. Laynesmith, Cecily duchess of York (Bloomsbury, 2017).
[4] Transcribed and discussed in Anne F. Sutton and Livia Visser-Fuchs with R. A. Griffiths, The Royal Funerals of the House of York at Windsor (Richard III Society, 2005).
[5] Charles Creighton, A History of Epidemics in Britain (CUP, 1891), I:283.
Image from Wikmedia Commons,

Monday, 22 April 2019

Archaeology at Collyweston Palace

In February this year exciting news emerged about archaeology on the site of Lady Margaret Beaufort’s home at Collyweston in Northamptonshire. I recently found out that the Collyweston Historical and Preservation Society are looking for support in this project: see here. The preliminary geophysical services have been completed to guide the digs this summer. They plan to reveal their findings at a celebratory weekend on 7th and 8th September.

What makes this so exciting? Collyweston was one of the first brick manor houses in the region and its early grandeur was the work of the Yorkist Ralph Lord Cromwell, who was a major political figure through the fifteenth century. He fought at Agincourt and was Treasurer of England for a decade during which time he amassed considerable wealth. He stepped down because he opposed the policies of William de la Pole, duke of Suffolk. He was a member of Richard duke of York’s affinity from 1441, which was not always good for his political career. However, it has been speculated that his late arrival for the First Battle of St Albans was a consequence of misgivings at York’s violent approach. Unlike Collyweston, his great building projects at South Wingfield and Tattershall are still testament to his power and influence. He died at South Wingfield in January 1456.

Lady Margaret Beaufort acquired the palace in 1499, fourteen years into her son's reign. She made extensive improvements both to the gardens and buildings in 1502-3 including bay windows decorated with the Beaufort arms. It was during this time that Margaret offered refuge at Collyweston to Edward IV’s daughter, Cecily, who had been banished from court by an enraged Henry VII for secretly marrying a mere esquire, Thomas Kyme. But in 1503 the court came to Collyweston for three weeks of midsummer festivities. These were to mark Princess Margaret’s final days with her family before she departed for Scotland and marriage with James IV. It was probably the most spectacular period in Collyweston’s history and it marked what was to prove a turning point in British history. It will be wonderful to be able to reimagine the space in which these celebrations occurred.

Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Tudor Chamber Books

A fantastic new resource for research into the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries has just been launched: Tudor Chamber Books. It is an opportunity to browse or search the detailed records of weekly expenditure and income for the royal chamber in surviving receipt and expenditure books for 1485-1521. It also includes the privy purse expenses of Elizabeth of York, re-transcribed with additional material not included in the previously published version. The website is not yet finished – the project organisers describe the current site as a ‘draft’ – it will eventually be more searchable, and the formatting needs work, especially for the modern English version. Nonetheless, what we can now access from the comfort of our homes are over 4,000 pages from The National Archives and the British Library that will provide an invaluable resource for historical research, especially into statecraft, court life and material culture.

Two members of the research committee attended the launch of the database at a fascinating conference at the University of Winchester, where the project has been based. Papers were delivered both by members of the research project and external scholars. Many of these will eventually be published in a special edition of the journal History. Delegates learned that although no accounts survive for the Yorkist kings, it was Edward IV who was the first to use it extensively. Henry VII initially reverted to the Lancastrian reliance on the exchequer but found that system inefficiently slow. The chamber books reveal the intricacies of the accounting system, the king’s regular oversight and his sometimes clumsy penmanship. The breadth of topics that will benefit from this resource was indicated in papers that ranged from the queen’s household and her ladies or the crown’s relationship with Londoners or major nobles, to the Field of the Cloth of Gold, iconography in royal palaces, literary culture at court and the royal librarian, Quentyn Poulet.

In the course of the final roundtable, we were encouraged not just to search for the people or objects that intrigue us, but to spend time browsing through the pages, getting a sense of the rhythms of court life and coming by chance upon intriguing details that searches would never have brought us to. It is slightly addictive, drifting through the payments, wondering who those monks were spying on or what sort of 'dragon' Lord Grey of Wilton gave the king on the anniversary of Bosworth 1507. I feel it will be a wonderful resource not only for academics, students and enthusiastic amateur historians but novelists too.

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

The DNA of the Missing Princes

A recent newspaper report announced that newly discovered DNA could prove whether Richard III murdered the princes in the Tower. What is the real significance of this discovery?

The research was undertaken by Society member, Glen Moran, after hearing a talk by John Ashdown-Hill. He revealed that, contrary to previous assumptions, an all female line had survived on the princes' mother's side. This means that mitochondrial DNA that would match the princes could be identified.

If it were possible to examine the DNA of any of the various bones speculatively identified as those of the ‘Princes in the Tower’, this new discovery would help to establish for certain whether they really are those of the missing princes. The DNA already obtained from Richard III would also be key.

If the bones did include Richard III’s male line DNA, then it would be certain that they were closely related. However, technically, they might still be another relative, such as otherwise unknown royal bastards. This is, of course, highly unlikely, but only with the female line DNA as well could scientists be absolutely certain.

The other scenario in which the female line DNA could prove significant is if either Cecily duchess of York (the princes’ grandmother), or Elizabeth Woodville (their mother) had been unfaithful so that their offspring did not actually share the male line DNA of Richard III. Again, this is highly unlikely, although some historians and writers have argued that we should believe contemporary rumours that Edward IV was illegitimate. (For a recent refutation of ‘evidence’ for this, see Livia Visser-Fuchs’ article in the most recent edition of The Ricardian).

Could this impact on our understanding of whether Richard III killed the princes? This would depend on finding bones that could positively be identified as those of the princes. If the evidence of the bones indicated that the boys were clearly too old to have died in Richard III’s reign, then we would know that he could not have ordered their deaths. There are of course various sites rumoured to hold the remains of one or other of the princes, but whether the right body can be found and access granted for testing is of course another challenge. Unfortunately, if the boys merely fell sick or were killed by someone else during Richard’s reign, or shortly afterwards, the mystery would remain even if the bones could be found.