Monday, 13 July 2020

Katherine Williamson and the Farnells of Newsholme

Some Society members may have come across the name of Richard Williamson whose widow Katherine petitioned Parliament for redress against his killers. More of this story has now been pieced together from the records of the court of King’s Bench.

The Williamsons lived in the East Riding market town of Howden; Richard Williamson’s alleged murderers all belonged to the little village of Newsholme two miles further north-east. Beyond Newsholme, the main road crossed the River Derwent by the Barmby ferry before continuing northward, through Hemingbrough and the hamlets of Barlby and Riccall, towards York.

On Thursday 1 October 1472 Richard Williamson was riding back home from Riccall. What his errand there had been we are not told, but he may have had connections there since towards the end of Edward IV’s first reign he had got himself into trouble by entering a close at Riccall belonging to Henry Babthorpe from which he had picked up goods to the value of 5 marks (£3 6s 8d); when Babthorpe’s servant had attempted to stop him, Williamson had fought back with such force that the man had been left unable to work for some time. Williamson’s motivation for this trespass is unknown.[1]

On the present occasion too, Williamson was well equipped for possible trouble, being armed with a sword and buckler (small shield) as well as a bow and a dozen arrows. All went well until he reached Barmby. As he was waiting for the ferry, the three Farnell brothers Robert, Richard and John, ‘defensibly arrayed, that is to say, with jakkes and salettes, and with force and armes, that is to say, with bowes, arrowes, swerdes and speres, . . . lay in a wayte to slee and murther the said Richard Williamson, and uppon hym then and there made a grete assaute and affraye, and hym there horribly smote with a spere, that he fell beside his hors to the grounde; and then the said mysdoers havyng noo mercy ne pite of hym, with their swordes smote of booth the handes of the same Richard Williamson, and oon of his armes above the elbowe, and hym houghsynued [i.e. hamstrung], and hym so dedely woonded and lefte hym there for dede’: though not before  having robbed him of all his weapons.  

Whilst Richard Williamson was dying of his wounds, the Farnell brothers returned home ‘and roode to the said Thomas their fader . . . ; and the said Thomas, knowyng all his said sonnes the forseid felonyez and murdres and robberies in fourme aforeseid to have doon, all theym and every of theym atte toune of Newsom aforesaid, the same day and dyvers tymes after, felonsly recetted and conforted.’
It is unfortunate that we have – as is usual – no hint in the indictment of either motive or evidence. Whether the killing was the by-product of highway robbery or the simple result of a squabble over places on the ferry, we have no way of knowing; nor do we know why Katherine Williamson believed the Farnell brothers to be responsible. So far as is yet known, they had never previously been accused of any crime; on the contrary, Thomas Farnell had been the plaintiff in several cases of debt prosecuted that year in the court of Common Pleas.[2]

After his sons arrived home, Thomas allegedly decided that they should all four protect themselves by entering the service of the (as yet unwitting) Duke of Gloucester, whose nearest seat was Pontefract Castle, 25 miles west of Howden. Parliament was due to open at Westminster on 6 October, but  Richard was running late, and was possibly still at home when the murder occurred, because when parliament opened he was still at Bedale,[3] just 10 miles east of Middleham and 50 miles north of Pontefract. It is not clear whether all four were taken into the Duke’s service, as it is claimed was their intention, or only the father; but when Katherine Williamson learned what had happened she too set off for Pontefract, where Richard heard her grisly tale.

Richard’s response, upon hearing Katherine’s complaint, was not what his new retainer had expected. The Duke had Thomas arrested and committed to the custody of Sir Ralph Assheton, the county sheriff, who took him to York Gaol. Thomas’ sons, however, successfully eluded arrest.

Katherine’s next step was to present a petition to the Commons in parliament. it is difficult to see how she could have drafted such a legally complex document, travelled to Westminster with speed and succeeded in having such an unusual petition accepted, probably after the official deadline of 15 October, without the support of the Duke of Gloucester or someone enjoying an equal level of influence and access to legal counsel. What Katherine wanted was for the King to furnish the Sheriff of Yorkshire with the necessary writs to bring the Farnells into King’s Bench for trial:
And if the said Robert, Richard Farnell, John and Thomas. . .  appere not afore the kyng in his said bench; that then they, and ich of theym so then not apperyng, stond and be convicted and atteynted of the said felonyez, murdres and robberiez, and have like jugement and execution, and like forfeitures, as usuelly is used in other atteyndres of feloniez, murdres and robberies, had by the commen lawe.
Katherine further pleaded that all four Farnells should be denied bail and held in Newgate for the duration of the trial.

The Bill was passed, and the required writs were then issued (quite when is not clear because they were, for administrative reasons, backdated to the first day of parliament). The first was a corpus cum causa commanding the Sheriff to bring into King’s Bench ‘on the octave of St. Hilary [20 January] . . .  Thomas Farnell . . . together with the cause of the same Thomas’ capture and detention in the foresaid prison. . . .’ The second writ commanded the Sheriff to make repeated proclamations in Howden summoning Robert, Richard and John Farnell to bring themselves into King’s Bench ‘to respond to such bill or bills, action or actions as the foresaid Katherine or any other person or persons would then prosecute against them, or any of them, for the foresaid felony, murder and robbery.’

On 30 November parliament was prorogued for the long Christmas break. On 19 December Sir Ralph Assheton issued the first of five proclamations at Howden summoning the three brothers to appear in court on the fourth day of pleas. On the octave of St. Hilary Katherine was present in King’s Bench to see Sir Ralph Assheton bring in Thomas Farnell to answer her charges. On that same day, the Justices of King’s Bench, in keeping with the terms of her statute, committed Thomas to Newgate Gaol. Later evidence indicates that Thomas pleaded Not Guilty and opted for a jury trial, which was scheduled for the Easter term. Thomas’ sons, however, failed to appear on their due date. The justices therefore decreed “that the same Robert, Richard Farnell and John should stand and be convicted and attainted of the foresaid felonies, murders and robberies in accordance with the tenor, form and effect of the foresaid Act, etc.”

By the time parliament reconvened on 8 February, Thomas Farnell had been in prison for four months, and his trial date was still over two months away. He too now presented a petition to the Commons. Complaining that he, “beyng of grete age, lyth and is kept in prisone, to his fynall destruction and grete payne, God knoweth, and like to dye in shorte tyme, withoute the comfort and relieff of your said maisterships,” he asked that they, of their “grete pite and blessed dispositions, wold pray the king. . . to lete the same Thomas to baille, uppon reasenable suertie to be founden that he shall kepe his day to hym lymyte by the said justices”. This Bill too was passed, so it may be assumed that Thomas Farnell spent the remainder of his time awaiting trial in more comfortable circumstances. Parliament was prorogued again before Easter, and Richard of Gloucester returned north.[4]

Thomas Farnell’s trial would have taken place in May, although the exact date is unknown. No description of the proceedings survives, but a memorandum reveals that the jury acquitted him, and that, as a result, Katherine Williamson was fined half a mark (6s 8d) for making false clamour. It must have been a disappointing outcome for her, but Thomas had paid for his attempt to protect his sons with four months in prison, and the three missing killers had been convicted in absentia.
Thomas Farnell was still living in 1477, but seems to have died before the end of Edward IV’s reign. His sons may later have been pardoned or acquitted because in 1484 the eldest, Robert, was sued together with his widowed mother for the theft of pasturage and hay from a close in Pontefract.[5]

Main Sources
Parliament Rolls of Medieval England, ed. C. Given-Wilson et al. (Woodbridge, 2005)
TNA KB 27/846, rot. 85r-86r, and KB 29/103, rot. 5r

by Marie Barnfield

[1] TNA CP 40/837, image no. d.446 on Anglo-American Legal Tradition (AALT) website.
[2] CP 40/841, AALT nos.  d. 1035, 1576, 1587, 1608.
[3] TNA KB 9/330, m. 23.
[4] TNA DL 29/648/10485, m. 12r.
[5] CP 40/861, AALT f. 703; CP 40/890, AALT d. 1528.

Saturday, 23 May 2020

Using the Consistory Database to Understand the Milles Wills

My will be done? (Lynda Pidgeon)
Some bequests in wills are conditional, for example, if his wife or son were to ‘trouble, vex or disturb’ the testator’s wishes, then they would not receive that particular bequest. Terms such as ‘vex’ or ‘disturb’ suggest that litigation of some sort might be contemplated by those who felt deprived of an inheritance. A database of records from the London consistory court (, allows the researcher to investigate this suggestion further.
The consistory court was an ecclesiastical court, in this instance dealing with the city and the rural hinterland of Essex, Middlesex and part of Hertfordshire. It was the bishop’s court that dealt with marriage disputes, defamation, sexual offences, debt, probate of wills and clerical discipline. Judgements made in these cases rarely survive, so we have no idea of the outcome, unless other evidence can be found. On the other hand witnesses on behalf of the plaintiff and defendant were asked specific questions to support their case. Their answers – depositions – were set out in a separate book and these survive for 1467-76 (in the London Metropolitan Archives) and 1487-96 (in the London Guildhall Library). This latter book has been transcribed and translated to create the database.  So we have a jigsaw with no picture and over half the pieces missing.  Amongst the testamentary  cases is one that relates to a will recorded in the Milles Register: the will of John Baker. As this name is almost as common as John Smith, it proved difficult to put the jigsaw together and indeed several of the women concerned were called Agnes.
The testamentary suit heard in consistory court dates to January / February 1493; the plaintiff was John Baker, the defendant Agnes Symson, previously Baker. The suit related to the will of John Baker, made on 13 April 1490 and granted probate on 6 August 1490. The testator was a cooper and citizen of London who lived in the ward of St Michael Bassingshaw, London.  His will is rather long (6 pages) and complex. Amongst other legacies he gave money and silverware to John Baker his ‘cousyn’ and Elizabeth Payne, both were under 21 when the will was made. Agnes was to have the ‘guiding’ of both children until they came of age or married. John senior owned two messuages with gardens adjoining in East Greenwich, Kent. This property was to go to his cousin John Baker and his heirs after the death of Agnes. If he died before Agnes, and before reaching the age of 21, then the property would revert to the feoffees (trustees) on her death.  It seems likely that the John Baker who brought the consistory court suit was the cousin mentioned. As he was suing Agnes he must have reached the age of 21 and was claiming the money and goods bequeathed to him. In the three years since Baker’s death Agnes appears to have remarried someone called Symson.
The first witness called by Agnes Symson was Agnes Smyth, presumably the wife of the salter to whom Baker left 20s.  She was 26 years old, had lived in the parish of St Michael for 7 years and was illiterate. She had known the Bakers for 9 or 10 years, so from before she moved into the parish.  She confirmed that she had witnessed the reading of Baker’s testament in a chamber in his house, along with Thomas Lydys and others, about 2 years previously. At the reading she heard that certain goods and lands were bequeathed to John Baker the younger and that administration was committed to Agnes. She agreed with a previous witness but that it was ‘8 years or more’.  (We do not have the previous witness’s statement and do not know what the ‘8 years’ relates to.)
The next witness, also called by Agnes, was Alice Waren. She was not a beneficiary in Baker’s will, but claimed to have known Agnes Symson alias Baker for 9 years and the late John for 14 years. Alice had lived in the parish of St Margaret, Westminster for 7 years, was 50 years old and was illiterate. She said that the administration of goods was committed to Agnes and that she had heard that Baker had bequeathed to John Baker the younger certain lands to the value of 40s p.a.. Agnes the mother of John Baker had told her this. She confirmed that John the younger was born around the feast of St Michael 9 years ago in her house in Whitechapel parish outside Aldgate; he was baptised in the said church; and on the third day, in the middle of the night, ‘the said John Baker’ died and was buried in the cemetery of the same church. This she knew from her own sight and hearing.
What are we to make of Alice’s testimony? There are no other depositions from witnesses for either Agnes Symson or John Baker. If John Baker junior had been born 9 years earlier and died shortly afterwards, then when Baker senior made his will he would surely have been aware that his young cousin was dead? Also, if Alice Waren knew John senior as well as she claimed then she would surely have told him this?  Alternativley if the plaintiff was the child referred to by Alice, and he was alive then, he was only 9; not only would he have been too young to bring the suit, also he would not be entitled to his legacy until he was 21. The lack of detail regarding the case being brought by John Baker, the missing testimonies of some of the witnesses and the missing outcome mean that we can only surmise what had happened.  What seems most likely is that the plaintiff was the cousin John Baker, that he had reached the age of 21 and that Agnes Symson had failed to give him his bequests: he was therefore suing her for the money and silverware.
The testimony of Alice Waren is a problem; she claimed that Agnes the mother of John Baker told her about the bequest of land to John. Presumably this was the mother of John Baker junior, not the testator, but this child was dead, so why would the mother be referring to a bequest to a child who was dead? The death of the child, if this was the cousin, made the bequest void. So who was Alice referring to?  A major problem with this testimony is that Agnes, John Baker senior’s widow, was given the guiding of the cousin and the young girl Elizabeth Payne – which suggests that both lived in Baker’s household.
Was it Agnes, the widow, who was producing a red herring by suggesting, through the testimony of Alice, that John Baker was an imposter so that she could deprive him of his inheritance? Or was Agnes suggesting that the plaintiff was not the John Baker meant by her husband? Swinburne’s Treatise on testaments and wills has a section on how wills might become void. One means was uncertainty over the legatee, i.e. if no-one could be found of that name or where there was more than one person with the same name. Alice Waren certainly provided uncertainty.
The consistory court record has added a confusing, though interesting dimension to Baker’s will and also provides glimpses of the lives of people in London, where they lived, their age, if they were literate and something of their social circle.
The original reference of the suit is: London Metropolitan Archives, MS DL/C/A/001/MS09065: 136r-137r

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Richard and Jane Welbeke of Putney

One of last year's talks at the Wills Study day was by Peter Charnley and Carol Dougherty whose findings have been summarised by Heather Falvey

The wills of Richard Welbeke (1488) & Jane Welbeke (1489)

Having the wills of a man and his widow allows historians to link items in those wills and so have a better contextual understanding.  We can follow the story onwards, as it were. The second will might clarify ambiguities in the first but it might also omit beneficiaries who were well catered for in the earlier one.   The wills of Richard and Jane Welbeke provide good examples of these features.

Local historian Dorian Gerhold has identified the exact location for the Welbeke’s home in Putney.  Their very sizeable property can be identified in a written survey of 1497 which details the five ‘chief places’ of Putney and also suggests that the entire population of Putney in that year was almost 300.  (See Dorian Gerhold, Thomas Cromwell and his family in Putney and Wandsworth, published by Wandsworth Historical Society.)   

Richard Welbeke left his ‘Right of the Fery of Putnehith’ (Putney) to William Welbeke (probably his uncle) as payment for his labour in his role as executor of Richard’s will.  This referred to the right to profits from the ferry at Putney. It indicates that Richard would have received an income from those working the ferry but would not have been a ferryman himself. At this time the Thames was only passable by ferry or boat at this location (present Putney Bridge).  It was a well-known and convenient crossing so there was plenty of business to be had ferrying people across the river.
There were four shares in the ferry – two belonging to the manor of Wimbledon (which included Putney) and two to the manor of Fulham.

There is no firm evidence regarding Richard Welbeke’s status or occupation but he evidently received an income from his right of ferry and from the rents for his houses and tenements in London, Essex and Derbyshire.  The two wills each detail quite a spread of named properties and lands in and around Colchester, including a messuage (house and surrounding buildings) in ‘Est Strete’, Colchester and a messuage in Grenested (Greenstead) called Parsons, held (rented from) Walter, Abbot of St John’s, Colchester.  We have an idea about what Est Strete in Colchester was like at this time.  It was ‘one of the poorest in the town after Bere Lane, and was home to several unlicensed brothels’.  (, accessed 06/09/19) Richard also left to his son John ‘all my [unspecified] lands and tenements in Derbyshire …’.  As he had left money to the brotherhood (or fraternity) of Our Lady of Ashbourne, it seemed likely  that  Ashbourne was the locus of the Derbyshire landholding.  And so it proved to be: the Derbyshire Archives have a wealth of documentary evidence linking the Welbeke family to considerable landholding and property ownership within Ashbourne and surrounding villages, particularly Compton and Clifton. 

Both Richard and Jane refer to a William Welbeke – possibly Richard’s uncle. A bit more investigation into this person reveals that he was a Merchant of the Staple. He is mentioned in the Close Rolls of Henry VII (1489) as ‘haberdassher and merchant of London and the Staple’, indicating that he was a member of the Worshipful Company of Haberdashers and a freeman. Exports of wool were restricted to freemen of the company and they were granted a monopoly over the export in return for collecting duties and paying these to the Exchequer – of course creating an income for themselves in the process.  Perhaps the Derbyshire properties referred to in Richard’s will were associated with the lucrative wool trade and the familial links between him and William ensured that the income was kept in the family.
On the north wall of the parish church in Putney was a brass memorial dedicated to Richard’s parents, John (died 1476) and Agnes (died 1478), but the inset brass figures were stolen in the 1970s. Richard’s own monumental brass bears the inscription ‘of the Middle Temple’ but his name does not appear in the admissions register as a member – leaving us with another conundrum about this interesting individual!

As already mentioned, Richard Welbeke bequeathed all his Derbyshire lands and tenements to his son John.  A year later, in Jane Welbeke’s will, she mentioned her son Richard and three daughters, all of whom were below the ages of majority, but there is no mention of John.  This is probably because he had already had a sizeable bequest from his father, so Jane considered that what was left of her estate should reasonably be divided between her other four children.  If only her will had survived, and not her husband’s as well, John’s existence would be unknown.

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,