Thursday, May 5, 2016

The battle before the battle

by Barbara Gaskell Denvil

We are often proud to announce that England has not been successfully invaded since 1066, but this is not entirely true, and there have been many battles taking place on English soil over the centuries. Henry Tudor invaded in 1485 with an army both financed and principally comprising French mercenaries, and William of Orange did, in one sense, invade although it was comparatively bloodless. Bloodiest of all were the battles of the so-called Wars of the Roses and the later Civil War.

But there was another war, rarely mentioned and rarely considered. This was something that brought more ruin to the general population, and surely mattered more to them than the problem of which king wore the crown. And that was the battle behind each and every battle that took place in this country, and of course, also in others.

The lords who were called to fight for their faction came from all over the land, and they mustered their troops from their own vast estates, wherever those were situated. Then these mustered armies, sometimes comprising trained soldiers and archers but usually simply of ordinary men, farmers, tradesmen, and craftsmen, tramped across the countryside behind their leaders, making for whatever distant area had been designated as a meeting place. Sometimes this involved crossing hundreds of miles, and several thousand tired men striding across fields and through small villages, could cause devastating damage. Depending on their leader, these men might be disciplined and given food – or they might very likely be left to feed themselves. A  farmer’s crops and animals were frequently seized, taken for the cook pot or to roast over the campfire at night, with recurring demands for free food and drink from the local folk. Women might be abused, and fights and skirmishes would break out along the route. These were men facing possible death, and their consideration for the lands through which they passed would be low.

For example, the ferocious and tragic Battle of Towton, 1461, was fought in Yorkshire. But the men who joined the battle had come from all over England, tramping mile by mile, summoned by their lord to fight for his cause and ambition. The weather was freezing. Men who faced death from hunger before they even arrived at Towton, would take what they needed along the way. One estimate of those killed at Towton stands at nearly 30,000 men. So first the muster brought its own devastation of the countryside, and then the horrific slaughter left a host of widows and fatherless children in wretched penury and with the utter misery of such awful loss without even the opportunity to bury the hosts of the dead.

Men called upon to risk life and limb, ready to slaughter or be slaughtered, were not always on their best behaviour, nor were they all the sweetest of polite gentlemen. There were the prickers, for instance. These were mounted men armed with pitch-forks and employed to gallop the outlying limits of a battlefield and force back into action any attempted deserters. I doubt if such men were too careful concerning their manners as they marched the long miles to the battlefront.

There would also be heavy wagons loaded with supplies and arms, followed by women and trailing families, children ready to help deliver arrows on the outskirts once fighting started, and prostitutes hoping to make a little money and a little friendship. No lightweight procession then – trundling across the land, searching for food as they went, and looking for places to camp.

Henry V
But the worst damage came from foreign armies. They could devastate the land they crossed. Burning as they went, many foreign soldiers hoped to force their enemy into surrender by ensuring all farmland and food crops were eradicated as they passed. A starving enemy would be weak and more willing to lay down their arms. Such ruthless cruelty became more and more commonly accepted. The so-called hero of Agincourt, King Henry V, adopted this scorched-earth strategy, and left utter misery and destitution behind him when he invaded France. And it was the common folk, not the lords, who suffered most and whose depleted livestock and burned fields might take years to recover, ensuring bitter hunger and poverty long after the actual battle was won or lost.

When Henry Tudor led an army consisting mostly of soldiers from England’s greatest enemy, France,  across the country from Wales to Warwickshire and Leicestershire, they left a trail of devastation behind them. The French had no love for the English and would not have treated either the people or the land with respect. Besides, many of the French army were mercenaries, or criminals released from prison in exchange for their willingness to fight. The weather was hot and the miles long and sweaty. Robbery, violence and rape would certainly have occurred along the way. Some cities opened their gates to Henry’s troops, which seems unsurprising. Better to invite them in and treat them well, rather than risk the utter desecration of crops, farmland and outlying homesteads by refusing all succour.

Foreign armies could bring little with them in the way of food and comfort. Wagonloads of arms would be hard enough to transport overseas since shipping was not a simple matter in those days. So the whole army needed feeding – thousands of men twice a day. And men had other desires. No camp-followers or prostitutes would have voluntarily served a foreign army and so the troops would simply have taken what they found along the route. The long standing enmity between the English and the French at that time – strongly expressed in both battle and peacetime – could not have ensured any peaceful trudge through those summer lanes. The fields, about to be harvested would have been stripped or trampled underfoot.

Henry Tudor
There are some contemporary indications of the devastation that occurred in this manner. For instance, Henry Tudor, once he claimed the crown, paid compensation to the farm owners whose lands had been wrecked where the battle actually took place and where his army had camped the previous night. But there is no mention of restitution made for the whole journey from the west coast to the east and nor would the leaders of any foreign invasions ever offer restitution for the purposeful destruction of the peaceful lands they crossed. Later, the Pretender ‘Perkin Warbeck’ when accompanied by a Scottish army marching into England to do battle for his claim as Prince Richard, Duke of York, soon abandoned his invasion because he could not accept the terrible violence he saw done to the local people, destruction of crops and brutality of the men he led as they tramped through the English counties.

There is also considerable evidence of later armies abroad, those of Napoleon for example, and the appalling misery they left behind them across Europe and Russia – not during battle alone – but simply during the passage of such mighty armies through peaceful and suffering country-sides.

So we read of the great battles of the past and we cheer for the heroes, but there was another destruction that went unrecorded, and that was suffered by the ordinary citizens, many of whom would have no chance to recover. This was what hurt the common man, who probably cared little for which king sat snug and smug upon the throne. The heroic victors of historical battles were often exactly those who had inflicted the most appalling disservice to the very folk they sought to rule.

Barbara Gaskell Denvil was born in Gloucestershire, England and later moved to London where she grew up surrounded by books, paintings and antiques. Her Scottish father was an artist and playwright, her Australian mother was a teacher, and elder sister, a successful author first published at age 16. The classic Victorian author Mrs Elizabeth Gaskell was a great, great, great aunt, so a bookish family. When birthdays came around, no one was asked what they wanted. As a child she never owned a bike or scooter, the question was simply, "Which book do you want this year?"

Her passion is for late English medieval history and this forms the background for many of her historical novels. She also write fantasy, yet both fantasy and historical fiction take us into new worlds and Barbara's books do exactly this - being multi-layered, and rich in atmosphere and depth of characterisation. Barbara can be found on her website and on Amazon

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Richard the Lionheart and the Siege of Nottingham, 1194

by Charlene Newcomb

King Richard I
The siege of Nottingham in 1194 lasted only three days, but its significance should not be downplayed. The siege signaled the return of Richard I to England, secured his realm from his brother John, and set in play the mechanisms to allow Richard to carry out campaigns to drive the French from his continental lands.

On the fourth day of February 1194 King Richard I, the Lionheart, began what would be his final journey to England. He had last touched English soil in December 1189, a few months after his coronation. Having taken the Cross in 1187, Richard had been committed to the crusade to re-capture Jerusalem and left for the Holy Land in 1190. The Third Crusade was not successful in that respect, and aware of troubles back home – the French invading his lands on the continent and his brother John stirring trouble - Richard signed a truce with Saladin and started back to England in October 1192. Other returning soldiers arrived in England by that December, but there was no sign of the king. By late January, word arrived: Richard had been captured by Duke Leopold of Austria shortly before Christmas, and was being held by Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor.

John (of future Magna Carta fame) had not been idle whilst Richard was on crusade. Richard had left his younger brother in good stead, with lands and income that made him one of the wealthier barons in the kingdom, but John consolidated his powers further in 1191-92. He and his supporters stood against the king’s chancellor and troops sent against them, and John took control of the strategic castles at Tickhill and Nottingham. When he learned of Richard’s capture, John plotted with Philippe Capet, King of France, to usurp the throne. John’s mercenaries attempted an invasion of the southeast Kentish coast in March 1193; his men ravaged the countryside near Windsor. Sieges against his castles that spring finally ended in a truce to last from May to November. John appealed to his mother, Queen Eleanor, and to the Council that Richard was dead. He tried to convince barons in Normandy to swear fealty to him as king.

John and Philippe went so far as to offer Henry VI a deal if he would keep Richard imprisoned. With the majority of Richard’s ransom raised and partially delivered by late 1193, Henry was advised to accept the ransom agreed upon.

Richard returns to England
Richard was finally released on the 4th day of February. With his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine at his side, he finally set sail and arrived in Sandwich on March 13.

Upon hearing news of Richard’s impending release, John, who had fled to France in January, had ordered his vassals to defend his castles against the king’s men. Acting on Richard’s behalf whilst he had been absent, Queen Eleanor and the king’s justiciars ordered sieges against John’s men in early 1194. Several of the castellans immediately laid down arms, and others, upon verification that King Richard was on English soil, capitulated. The castellan of St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall supposedly died of fright when he heard the king had landed. Only Nottingham Castle held out.

The siege of Nottingham
King Richard arrived in Nottingham on March 25 with great fanfare. The chronicler Roger De Hoveden writes “that those who were in the castle…were astonished, and were confounded and alarmed, and trembling came upon them; but still they could not believe that the king had come, and supposed that the whole of this was done by the chiefs of the army for the purpose of deceiving them.”

Foulds tells us that the size of Richard’s retinue is difficult to estimate, but his forces likely included William Marshal’s men, and those from the earls of Chester, Ferrers, and Huntingdon, from the bishop of Durham, and the archbishops of York and Canterbury, to name a few.

Gatehouse, Nottingham Castle
Visitors to Nottingham today will see a gatehouse, but that stone structure was built in the 1250s and little remains of the 12th century castle. Richard’s troops would have encountered a wooden gatehouse and a timber palisade surrounding the outer bailey. 

Nottingham Castle, c.1189
copyright The Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire

That bailey on the eastern side of the castle stretched to the stone curtain wall of a middle bailey on higher ground. Drawings in Drage’s work depict a barbican and massive stone wall surrounded the middle bailey. The upper bailey rose even higher on the motte, some 40 meters (131 feet) above the town. The scale of the castle can be seen in a model representing the castle in the 15th century, but the great hall of the middle bailey and many of the buildings in the upper bailey – including the keep, the king and queen’s apartments, and a long hall – were built during the reign of Henry II.

Nottingham Castle, circa 1500
Impregnable? Perhaps, but certainly a bloody fight and long drawn out siege might be needed to bring the castle garrison to its knees. And that meant bodies, time, and money, none of which King Richard wanted to expend.

Richard commandeered lodging in full view of the castle, close enough that a man in his retinue was struck and killed by archers from the castle. The Histoire notes Richard was dressed in light mail with an iron hat rather than heavy armor “because that is what he was used to” after the fighting in the Holy Land. Richard was reportedly angry that the castle garrison had sent no one to confer and he ordered an immediate assault. Using large shields to protect themselves from crossbowmen on the battlements, the king and his men stormed the timber gate and broke into the outer bailey. The fighting was brutal and many were killed, wounded or captured. By nightfall, the besieged withdrew through the barbican and behind the more formidable walls of the middle bailey. The barbican was fired during the night by the garrison, prompting Richard to say, “This is much to our advantage unless I am mistaken.”

On day two of the siege, Richard ordered gallows built within sight of the castle and hung two soldiers captured during the previous day’s fighting. Richard did not order another assault, wanting to have his siege engines set in place. He had Greek fire at his disposal and the materials to make more, but there is no evidence it was used against the castle.

A later version of a siege machine,
i.e., trebuchet 
Foulds speculates that bombardment of the castle and the arrival of more troops (from the siege at Tickhill) finally prompted Nottingham Castle’s castellans to send a delegation to meet with King Richard on the third day of the siege, March 27. (The Historie places an initial meeting with men from the garrison on day 1 of the siege.) Once the delegation confirmed that, indeed, King Richard was at their doorstep, a group of the garrison leaders surrendered, recognizing their punishment would be less severe. Prompted by negotiations with Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, the remaining defenders surrendered to the king on the 28th of March.

King Richard spent March 30 – April 2 in the Council of Nottingham. He sold shrievalties and levied taxes to raise monies to pay off what was owed for his ransom and for the coming fight against the French, heard complaints of John’s actions, and listened to accusations of excesses by his half-brother Geoffrey, Archbishop of York. He also set April 20 in Winchester as the date he would deal with the men who had supported John. Many were put in prison and would be ransomed; others were released upon promise to pay a fine of 100 marks.

King Richard left Nottinghamshire on April 5 never to return again.


De Hoveden, R. (1853). The annals of Roger de Hoveden, comprising the history of England and of other countries of Europe from A. D. 732 to A. D. 1201. (Henry T. Riley, Trans.). London: H. G. Bohn. (Original work published 1201?)

Drage, C. (1989). Nottingham Castle: a Place Full Royal. Nottingham: The Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire.

Foulds, T. (1991). “The Siege of Nottingham Castle in 1194” in Transactions of the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire, volume 95.

Gillingham, J. (1978). Richard the Lionheart. New York: Times Books.

Holden, A.J., ed., (2002). History of William Marshal [L’Histoire de Guillaume le Maréchal. French and English]. London: published by the Anglo-Norman Text Society: Birkbeck College.

Painting of Richard the Lionheart by Merry-Joseph Blondel in Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Line drawing of Nottingham Castle, circa 1189. In Nottingham Castle: a Place Full Royal, copyright the Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire. Used with permission.

Model of Nottingham Castle. Photo taken at Nottingham Castle, Museum & Art Gallery by Cathy Young. Used with permission.

All other photos taken by the author. CC BY-SA

Charlene Newcomb is the author of Books I & II of Battle Scars. These historical adventures are set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. Men of the Cross is a tale of war’s impact on a young knight and of forbidden love. In For King and Country, the knights return from The Third Crusade to an England threatened by civil war.

Connect with Char:
website | Facebook | Twitter | Amazon

Monday, May 2, 2016

Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales

By Cryssa Bazos

When people think of Charles II of England, they usually think of Charles the Merry Monarch. Yet there was more to this intelligent man than the number of mistresses (and illegitimate children) he had. His life was defined by war, loss, and exile, and in the end, restoration. He fought to reclaim his father’s throne during one of the most tumultuous and complex times in English history. To understand who he was before becoming the Merry Monarch, allow me to introduce his early years when he was still the Prince of Wales.

Charles Stuart by Philippe de Champaigne

Charles was the eldest son and heir of King Charles I of England and Queen Henrietta Maria (sister to Louis XIII of France). His grandfather, King James I of England (James VI of Scotland) united the crowns of Scotland and England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I. Charles was born on May 29, 1630 in St. James’s Palace in London, and as the story goes, a bright star shone in the afternoon sky to mark his birth. Ironically, this star was Venus.

Charles took after his mother’s French heritage, with his dark looks. Henrietta Maria called him her ‘black boy', though not with affectionate fondness. Whereas most mothers are often blind to their children’s ‘imperfections’, Henrietta Maria was hypersensitive. Shortly after Charles’s birth, Henrietta wrote about her son to a former nanny, “he is so fat and so tall…I will send you his portrait as soon as he is a little fairer, for at present he is so dark I am ashamed of him.” Charles never became fair, but at 6’2” he fulfilled the promise of exceptional height.

The Children of Charles I

Over the next several years, Charles was joined by a clutch of brothers and sisters in order of birth: Mary (later Princess of Orange), James (King James II & VII), Anne, Elizabeth, Henry (Duke of Gloucester), and Henrietta (Duchess of Orleans, but known affectionately as Minette). He was particularly close to his brother James, who ultimately ascended the throne after him. The two had experienced the upheaval of the civil war together, and even when James later converted to Catholicism, Charles supported his decision even though it was politically inconvenient. Some have attributed Charles’s deathbed conversion to Catholicism as having signalled his support for his brother on the eve of James’s ascension to the throne.

When Charles was eight, he was given over to the care and education of William Cavendish, then Marquess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Cavendish was a notable horseman and the father of dressage. A long-time political player from a wealthy family, he instilled in Charles the gift to see men for what they were and the ability to work with them according to their talents. He also fostered in Charles a love of horsemanship.

Charles’s keen wit came through even at this young age. Having a strong aversion to taking physic, he wrote a clever note to Cavendish, which also demonstrated his affection for his guardian:

“My Lord, I would not have you take too much physic, for it doth always make me worse, and I think it will do the like with you. I ride every day, and am ready to follow any other directions from you. Make haste to return to him that loves you. Charles, P.”

Charles had a very different personality than his stubborn father. Had he been king during this time, war may very well have been avoided, and with it, years of bloodshed.

But civil war did break out, and Charles’s idyllic childhood came to an abrupt end in 1642 when Parliament raised an army against his father. Charles was given a titular captaincy and a troop of horse named after him, the Prince of Wales Regiment. At this time, his dashing cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, came to lead his Majesty’s horse, and the young Charles looked up to his cousin as any impressionable twelve-year old would.

During the first major battle of the war (Edgehill), Charles should never have been anywhere near the fighting, and yet typically, he was and had a close shave with the enemy. His safety, and that of his brother James, was entrusted to the famous physician, Dr. William Harvey. In later years, the doctor became celebrated for documenting the circulation of blood, but at this moment, with two armies clashing on a field, the good doctor withdrew with his charges to the shelter of a hedgerow and the comforts of an absorbing book. The fighting heated and now being too close for comfort, Charles and his brother fled across a field to reach the safety of a barn. An enemy troop of horse saw the pair running, and without realizing who they were, gave chase. Fortunately, another Royalist troop headed off the enemy cavalry before they could capture the King’s sons, thereby avoiding a checkmate.

A History of England

In March 1645, Charles had been named Captain-General of his father’s forces in the west and was stationed in Bristol, relying on Edward Hyde as one of his chief advisors. Charles has always proved loyal to those who had shown him loyalty; years later when he won back his throne, he elevated Hyde to Chancellor and bestowed upon him an earldom.

By June 1645, the war had turned against the King. Following their defeat at Naseby, the Royalist army was in shambles. It soon became necessary to send Charles to the west where he would be safer from the threat of Parliament. As well, plague was becoming a threat in Bristol. Charles and his retinue left Bristol and travelled west to Barnstaple, and in September, continued to Cornwall. But by the spring of 1646, the mainland was not safe for the King’s heir, and he was forced to sail for the Isles of Scilly and then to Jersey.

iStock Photos

Sailing across the Channel to Jersey flared Charles’s sense of adventure. While on board the privateer, the Proud Black Eagle, he took the helm for a time. His ship was forced to flee from a fleet of Parliamentary ships, but they managed to safely sail into Jersey harbour.

Clearly this made an impression on him, for when he needed to come to his father’s aid, he chose to do it on the water. In 1648, one of the king’s supporters in Scotland, the Duke of Hamilton, raised an army for the King who was a prisoner of Parliament by this time. Wanting to be in readiness to join in the fray, Charles left France for Holland with a small fleet under his command. With some degree of schadenfreude, he happened to chance upon a naval mutiny in the Parliamentary fleet. Ten ships put aside their officers and placed themselves under Charles’s command. From there, Charles and his expanded fleet sailed for the Downs.

In the Channel, while waiting for favourable news on land, he played the privateer (or pirate, depending on your perspective). Things did not always go well for the Pirate Prince. His fleet suffered from internal divisions and a betrayal from some of the Prince’s supporters (though it was thwarted). Even the weather conspired against him. Just as his ships were geared to engage against the Parliamentary fleet, a fierce storm drove them apart. Unfortunately, rescuing the King was not in the cards, and Cromwell defeated Hamilton’s army.

One thing bore fruit from Charles’s Channel runs, an act of respect that paid dividends three years later. One of the prizes he seized was a ship captained by Nicholas Tattersell. Charles readily released the ship, which was no small relief to Tattersell. Years later, when Charles was a desperate fugitive with a reward of a thousand pounds offered for his capture, his last hope for finding passage on a ship ended up with Tattersell. Though Charles dressed and acted like a commoner, Tattersell had not forgotten the man who had captured his ship—nor did he forget that the Prince had promptly released it to him. Tattersell agreed to help Charles and spirited Charles safely to France.

And finally, one of my favourite stories of Charles involves the carte blanche. Before his father’s execution on January 29, 1649, after Parliament had tried and found the King guilty, the story goes that Charles sent a carte blanche (a blank piece of paper with his signature) to Parliament so that they could fill in their own terms for sparing his father’s life. If true, the ramifications to Charles were enormous.

Did it actually happen or is it a 19th century fabrication or error? I like to believe in its veracity, not only because it is his signature that appears on the bottom of this blank document, but also is entirely in keeping with the nature and character of Charles Stuart, Prince of Wales.


Memoirs of the Court of Charles the Second, Anthony Hamilton

Memoirs of Lady Fanshawe: Excerpt From: Lady Anne Harrison Fanshawe.

Reprobates: The Cavaliers of the English Civil War, by John Stubbs

Carte Blanche, by T. C. Skeat 

BCW Project

Media attributions:

Charles Stuart: By Philippe de Champaigne -, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

The Children of Charles I of England, by Sir Anthony van Dyck in 1637, Wikimedia Commons

A history of England from the landing of Julius Caesar to the present day (1913): Internet Archive Book Images via Visual hunt / No known copyright restrictions

Charles II signature: By Connormah, Charles II [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). For more stories about the English Civil War and the 17th Century, visit her blog.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Godiva: Her Literary Legend

by Octavia Randolph

Last month we looked at the historical record concerning Lady Godiva, the 11th century noblewoman Godgyfu of Mercia.

Maureen O’Hara as Godgyfu: read on to see why I think this image is the closest to the truth…

IN the first of these two essays I stated that I was convinced that Godgyfu had in fact enacted her famous ride. Now we will examine the way her ride has been remembered through the ages in poetry, prose, and visual art, and then look at why she may have performed such an extraordinary act, what it meant, and how that meaning has been perverted over time.

Over the centuries the story of Godgyfu's ride has enjoyed a life of its own. This is the oldest surviving account of it:
The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of her womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter insomuch that she obtained this answer from him: “Ascend,” he said, “thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.” Upon which she returned: “And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?” “I will,” he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal.

--from the Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover (d. 1236), translated from the Latin by Matthew of Westminster c 1300-1320
Later chroniclers embellished and expanded upon the legend:
But Gaufride sayth that this gentle and good Lady did not onely for the freeing of the said Citie and satisfying of her husbands pleasure, graunt vnto her sayde Husband to ryde as aforesayde: But also called in secret manner (by such as she put speciall trust in) all those that then were Magistrates and rulers of the said Citie of Couentrie, and vttered vnto them what good will she bare vnto the sayde Citie, and how shee had moued the Erle her husband to make the same free, the which vpon such condition as is afore mencioned, the sayde Erle graunted vnto her, which the sayde Lady was well contented to doe, requiring of them for the reuerence of womanhed, that at that day and tyme that she should ride (which was made certaine vnto them) that streight commaundement should be geuen throughout all the City, that euerie person should shut in their houses and Wyndowes, and none so hardy to looke out into the streetes, nor remayne in the stretes, vpon a very great paine, so that when the tyme came of her out ryding none sawe her, but her husbande and such as were present with him, and she and her Gentlewoman to wayte vpon her galoped through the Towne, where the people might here the treading of their Horsse, but they saw her not, and so she returned to her Husbande from the place from whence she came, her honestie saued, her purpose obteyned, her wisdome much commended, and her husbands imagination vtterly disappointed. And shortly after her returne, when shee had arayed and apparelled her selfe in most comely and seemly manner, then shee shewed her selfe openly to the peuple of the Citie of Couentrie, to the great joy and maruellous reioysing of all the Citizens and inhabitants of the same, who by her had receyued so great a benefite.

--from the account of Richard Grafton (d.1572) M.P. for Coventry
 The introduction of the voyeur famously to be known as Peeping Tom is even more recent, 17th century embroidery:
...In the Forenoone all householders were Commanded to keep in their Families shutting their doores & Windows close whilest the Duchess performed this good deed, which done she rode naked through the midst of the Towne, without any other Coverture save only her hair. But about the midst of the Citty her horse neighed, whereat one desirous to see the strange Case lett downe a Window, & looked out, for which fact, or for that the horse did neigh, as the cause thereof. Though all the Towne were Franchised, yet horses were not toll-free to this day.

--from the account of Humphrey Wanley (1672-1726)
It was left to Alfred, Lord Tennyson in 1842 to codify the tale into the form in which it became known around the world.


I waited for the train at Coventry;
I hung with grooms and porters on the bridge,
To watch the three tall spires; and there I shaped
The city's ancient legend into this:-
Not only we, the latest seed of Time,
New men, that in the flying of a wheel
Cry down the past, not only we, that prate
Of rights and wrongs, have loved the people well,
And loathed to see them overtax'd; but she
Did more, and underwent, and overcame,
The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, 'If we pay, we starve!'
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray'd him, 'If they pay this tax, they starve.'
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
'You would not let your little finger ache
For such as these?' - 'But I would die', said she.
He laugh'd, and swore by Peter and by Paul;
Then fillip'd at the diamond in her ear;
'Oh ay, ay, ay, you talk!' -'Alas!' she said,
'But prove me what I would not do.'
And from a heart as rough as Esau's hand,
He answer'd, 'Ride you naked thro' the town,
And I repeal it;' and nodding, as in scorn,
He parted, with great strides among his dogs.
So left alone, the passions of her mind,
As winds from all the compass shift and blow,
Made war upon each other for an hour,
Till pity won. She sent a herald forth,
And bade him cry, with sound of trumpet, all
The hard condition; but that she would loose
The people: therefore, as they loved her well,
From then till noon no foot should pace the street,
No eye look down, she passing; but that all
Should keep within, door shut, and window barr'd.
Then fled she to her inmost bower, and there
Unclasp'd the wedded eagles of her belt,
The grim Earl's gift; but ever at a breath
She linger'd, looking like a summer moon
Half-dipt in cloud: anon she shook her head,
And shower'd the rippled ringlets to her knee;
Unclad herself in haste; adown the stair
Stole on; and, like a creeping sunbeam, slid
From piller unto pillar, until she reach'd
The Gateway, there she found her palfrey trapt
In purple blazon'd with armorial gold.
Then she rode forth, clothed on with chastity:
The deep air listen'd round her as she rode,
And all the low wind hardly breathed for fear.
The little wide-mouth'd heads upon the spout
Had cunning eyes to see: the barking cur
Made her cheek flame; her palfrey's foot-fall shot
Light horrors thro' her pulses; the blind walls
Were full of chinks and holes; and overhead
Fantastic gables, crowding, stared: but she
Not less thro' all bore up, till, last, she saw
The white-flower'd elder-thicket from the field,
Gleam thro' the Gothic archway in the wall.
Then she rode back, clothed on with chasity;
And one low churl, compact of thankless earth,
The fatal byword of all years to come,
Boring a little auger-hole in fear,
Peep'd - but his eyes, before they had their will,
Were shrivell'd into darkness in his head,
And dropt before him. So the Powers, who wait
On noble deeds, cancell'd a sense misused;
And she, that knew not, pass'd: and all at once,
With twelve great shocks of sound, the shameless noon
Was clash'd and hammer'd from a hundred towers,
One after one: but even then she gain'd
Her bower; whence reissuing, robed and crown'd,
To meet her lord, she took the tax away
And built herself an everlasting name.

Oh, the everlasting shame!
19th century sculpture by John Thomas, Maidstone Museum, Kent.

All of these accounts ignore important facts and are fraught with inconsistency and illogic. Coventry at the time of the ride is depicted not as a small village but as teeming metropolis (recall that twenty years after Godgyfu's death it had less than seventy families). There is no corroborating evidence to suggest that Leofric warranted the reputation of a husband who would order his virtuous wife to parade naked through town in an attempt to humiliate her at worst, or at best to prove the sincerity of her compassionate leanings. On the contrary, the long record of the joint benefactions of Godgyfu and Leofric indicate that theirs was a marriage of more or less equal tastes and aims.

Divorce was far from uncommon amongst Anglo-Saxon aristocracy; if Godgyfu had found herself in an untenable marital situation the union could have been speedily dissolved, with her retaining all the property she had brought into the marriage and custody of any minor children. Thus separation from a husband who exhibited abusive behaviour could be accomplished without undue economic hardship upon the departing wife.

But by far the most vital fact ignored in these retellings is that Godgyfu possessed the village of Coventry outright. She need not ask Leofric or anyone else to suspend or repeal any tax or toll upon it, as she controlled the collection of these herself. The sole exception was the heregeld, an onerous levy instituted by Cnut to pay for the king's personal body-guard. Until revoked by Edward the Confessor in 1051, it was a national tax, required of all. Godgyfu would not have been able to suspend it – but she certainly could have paid it from her own purse.

The reason for this persistent misrepresentation is simple, but profound in its implications to the unfolding of the tale. Because Anglo-Saxon woman -- indeed all women in England -- had by the time of even the earliest extant retelling lost the extensive property (and other personal and legal) rights they had enjoyed prior to the disaster of 1066, chroniclers wrote from the perspective of Norman law and mores.

As the tale became sentimentalized and ever-more erotically charged, the victimization of Godgyfu became paramount – she must become a virtuous victim, compelled by an unfeeling husband to perform (in the chronicler's eyes) a humiliating act, in a Coventry subjected, as was she, to his utter domination. There is no room in these later recountings for a woman of independence and intelligence, acting out of deep-seated devotion, and inspired by well-remembered (and in some instances, still enacted) pre-Christian agricultural rituals and Biblical acts of religious dedication and contrition.

I believe her ride was performed as an act of religious devotion and contrition, and that it was inspired by examples of both heathen and Christian ritual, including sacred nakedness. The devotion was rooted in her real and demonstrable piety and her many benefactions (some of them jointly made with Leofric) to various religious foundations, including building a stone church in Coventry, which they enriched with a shrine to a local martyr, the nun Osburgh, who had been killed in a Danish raid in Godgyfu's lifetime. The extraordinary relic of the arm of St Augustine of Hippo was also given a home in that church.

We forget how close to the bone our heathen background was back then; there was a tremendously rich mixing of heathen ritual and magic combined with Christian worship. One well-known ritual, preserved in the British Library, is called in Old English Æcerbot, or Field Remedy. It is a heady combination of patently heathen practice (herb craft, charms, magical signing, the calling out to Mother Earth) and Christian ritual (the Latin Mass, participation of a priest) and is typical of the Anglo-Saxon era. For examples of sacred nakedness, the ritual bathing of the Old Saxon Earth Goddess Nerthus, responsible for all fruitfulness, was recorded by the Roman historian Tacitus, and on the Christian side there were many, many depictions of the repentant Mary Magdalen and St. Mary of Egypt, clothed only in their hair.

Her ride could also represent an act of referred contrition, as a particular response to her husband's destruction of Worcester. You will recall that Worcester was actually Leofric's own property, but that at Hardacnut’s order following the killing of two tax collectors there Leofric carried out a complete harrowing of the town. He simply destroyed it, even the church, and left not one grain barn standing.

So if Godgyfu relieved the residents of Coventry by paying the heregeld tax from her own purse, and then followed it with a miniature pilgrimage on horseback to the site where a revered holy woman, Osburgh, had been martyred – a site where she would soon build an impressive stone church, laden with treasure – these acts would have been remarkable enough to ensure her memory be preserved in the tiny and heretofore unimportant hamlet of Coventry.

Despite – or because of – the perverting of the tale, it grew. But however obscured, its underpinnings remain sound. As Joan C. Lancaster, former City Historian of the City of Coventry, states in her definitive study, Godiva of Coventry, the legend was predicated on a
"genuine local tradition known to the Coventry people in the 12th century...It was based on memory of her piety and her share in atoning for her husband's sins, and also the removal of the heregeld when she was ruling over them."

It is this Godgyfu I choose to celebrate and honour.

An unashamed Godgyfu
Scultpure by Sir William Reid Dick, 1949 in Broadgate, Coventry

Selected Bibliography

Godiva of Coventry, Joan C. Lancaster, Coventry Corporation, 1967

Lady Godiva: Images of a Legend in Art & Society, Ronald Aquilla Clarke and Patrick A.E. Day, City of Coventry, 1982 (pamphlet)

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, G. N. Garmonsway, trans., J.M. Dent & Sons, 1975

Domesday Book, Thomas Hinde, editor, Coombe Books, 1996

The Beginnings of English Society, Dorothy Whitelock, Penguin, 1974

This post was originally published on Sunday, August 25, 2013.


My novella about Lady Godiva, Ride, is my attempt to re-frame her act in light of the realities of 11th century Anglo-Saxon law and social and religious custom. It is also my tribute to the efforts of women everywhere who seek peace over their own personal comfort.

Octavia Randolph is also author of the best selling five volume Circle of Ceridwen Saga, set in 9th century England and Scandinavia.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, The Formidable Lady Melbourne

By Lauren Gilbert

The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, c 1770, by George Stubbs

Her date of birth apparently unknown, Elizabeth Milbanke was baptized Oct 15, 1751 at Croft-on-Trees Yorkshire. Her father was Sir Ralph Milbanke (5th baronet), and her mother Elizabeth Hedworth. The family home was Halnaby Hall in Yorkshire. Her father and her mother’s father were both political (her grandfather was a member of parliament for County Durham). Elizabeth was intelligent and educated privately (probably at home), her studies including French, and poetry. Her brother Ralph inherited their father’s title. Her mother died in 1767, when Elizabeth was approximately 15 years old.

In 1769, at about age 17, Elizabeth met and married Sir Peniston Lamb, who was 24 years old, the marriage being celebrated on April 13 1769 in London. He was the 2nd baronet, and they promptly moved to London. It was a marriage of mutual advantage: her lineage was better and she brought 10,000 pounds to the marriage; he provided her access to the highest level of London society. He was a Whig politician, representing at one time the Borough of Malmsbury, and Elizabeth quickly found her feet as a political hostess. She also developed a good head for business, and organized her husband’s financial affairs, including overseeing the building of Melbourne House in Piccadilly, London. Sir Peniston obtained an Irish peerage as Lord Melbourne, Baron of Kilmore in 1771. In 1781, he was elevated to Viscount Melbourne.

Sir Peniston was almost immediately unfaithful, which Elizabeth accepted with tolerance, if not with grace. Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent, and had the gift for making guests feel at ease, so became a successful hostess quickly. She also attracted confidences, which she remembered for future reference. Rather than show pique at her husband’s straying, Elizabeth focused her efforts on her activities as a reigning hostess and in making friendships that could be advantageous to her husband’s and family’s advancement. In time, these friendships included men, and involved affairs. Calm, rational, with a caustic wit, she seemed to be more comfortable with men than women. The first child, a son named Peniston born in 1770, was definitely Sir Peniston’s child. After that, who knew? It must be said that Sir Peniston accepted her affairs with the same toleration that she showed with his, including the children born of them. Elizabeth knew what Society expected and what Society would tolerate, and managed these activities with discretion.

A significant friendship ensued in 1774, when William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, married Georgiana Spencer. Elizabeth was quick to make friends with Georgiana, and became a mentor to her. (Since the Duchess of Devonshire had a better pedigree, more money and much higher rank, it was a way for Elizabeth to preserve her sphere of influence as a leader of society.) It may be said that Lady Melbourne kept her friends close, but kept her rivals closer by making friends with them. She was pragmatic and ruthless in her way.

Another significant friendship was that with Lord George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont was an advisor who educated her in agricultural and other business matters. He never married, and the friendship became romantic. Lord Egremont was supposedly the father of Elizabeth’s children William born 1779, Frederick born 1782, and Emily born 1787, all of whom were accepted by Sir Peniston. (The fact that he never married was attributed to Lady Melbourne’s influence in some sources.)

In 1782, Lady Melbourne became acquainted with George, the Prince of Wales. Their friendship developed into a fruitful relationship, resulting in an appointment as Gentleman of the Bedchamber at Carlton House for her husband in 1783, and another child, significantly named George, who was born in 1784 and widely believed to be the prince’s son. When that romance cooled about 1786, she resumed (assuming it had been interrupted) her relationship with Lord Egremont, as witnessed by the birth of Emily. Even so, she managed to maintain her friendship with the prince and a marital relationship with Sir Peniston. Harriet, the youngest child of the marriage, was born in 1789, and was believed to have been the only other child born by Lady Melbourne to her husband. Sadly, Harriet died of consumption (tuberculosis) on June 7, 1803, a devastating blow to Lady Melbourne. She was a devoted mother to her children, keenly interested in their development and studies. All of the children spent most of their time at the country estate of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, until the boys went to Eton. (Supposedly it was while visiting her son Peniston at Eton that she made the acquaintance of the Prince in 1782.)

The oldest son Peniston died January 24, 1805 of tuberculosis. Peniston had been his father’s favourite, and by all accounts was indulged by Sir Peniston, who gave him a personal allowance of 5000 pounds per year, allowed him to leave school early to travel the Continent, and engage in basically frivolous pastimes. Young Peniston was apparently very intelligent and replaced his father as MP for Newport, but was not particularly interested in politics and did very little. According to some sources, Peniston died in the arms of his mistress, whom Lady Melbourne brought to her son to comfort his last moments. The occasion of Peniston’s death is noted as the only time that Sir Peniston complained about his wife’s affairs, as young Peniston’s death meant that his heir would not be a child of his body. That heir was the second son, William, who also happened to be Lady Melbourne’s favourite. William had studied law, and entered into politics with real interest. His career and success became a primary focus for Lady Melbourne.

Peniston Lamb, 1805

Although Elizabeth maintained her friendship with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, she thoroughly disliked Harriet Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, the Duchess of Devonshire’s sister, and Caroline Ponsonby, the Countess’s daughter, as well. This dislike, however, did not prevent her from accepting her son William’s engagement and marriage in 1805 to Caroline. Lady Melbourne was a devoted mother, who was laser-focused on advancing her children’s interest at every turn by any means necessary, and was able to set aside her dislike since Caroline’s superior pedigree and influential relatives gave the match all the appearance of an advantageous one. This courtship and marriage started an explosive chain of events.

I do not propose to get into a detailed discussion of the life and affairs of Lady Caroline Lamb (the subject of many blogs, biographies and novels) but it is impossible to talk about Lady Melbourne without reference to her relationship with her daughter-in-law. In a word, bad. It is hard to imagine two ladies with less in common than Elizabeth and Caroline Lamb. From their appearance (Lady Melbourne being tall, full-fleshed and commanding vs. Caroline being slender, delicate and clinging) to their interests and personalities, they were almost direct opposites. As mentioned before, Elizabeth never liked Caroline or her mother, and she deeply resented Caroline’s influence over her son William. While pursuing and after wedding Caroline, William neglected his political career to enjoy the entertainments of the Devonshire set.

Caroline Lamb, by Eliza Trotter

Caroline was undisciplined and uncontrolled, intelligent but not well-educated, willing to have violent tantrums, had no concept of discretion or reticence, and unable to brook any restraint. Lady Melbourne was controlled, as well as controlling, even tempered, discreet, well-educated with a sharp wit and not reluctant to show her contempt for Caroline and her mother. William and Caroline lived on a floor in Melbourne Hall, which can only have exacerbated things to the maximum. In time, the marriage became difficult, and stressed even further after the birth of their son George in 1807, who was later found to be disabled. Then Caroline had a flirt, possibly an affair, with Sir Godfrey Webster in 1810, which alienated Lady Melbourne further.

Then, into this volatile mixture, we drop George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron and poet. Lady Melbourne was a mature woman (approximately 54 years old at the time of William’s marriage to Caroline in 1805) but she was a fascinating companion and still attractive to men. In 1811, Caroline met Lord Byron and by the middle of 1812, their affair was public knowledge. At some point, Lady Melbourne met Byron and developed a personal relationship with him herself, sharing letters from Caroline as well as engaging in her own correspondence with him. Although there was a large age difference (she was in her 60’s when he was in her 20’s), she was a fascinating correspondent, and subtly influenced Byron with her criticisms of Caroline.

Lady Melbourne’s brother’s daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella) was in London, and was introduced to her aunt and society. Annabella managed to attract Byron’s by appearing cool and disapproving, at a point where his attraction to Caroline’s passions was wearing thin. William’s neglect of his political career put him out of office, which disappointed Lady Melbourne even further. Lady Melbourne and Byron communicated frequently during this time. Annabella found her interest focused on Byron; the couple ended up engaged in 1814, in spite of her doubts and his basic reluctance, thanks in no small part to Lady Melbourne’s machinations and encouragement. While Caroline was trying to hold Byron’s interest, Lady Melbourne and, to a lesser degree, Annabella were busy redirecting it. Ultimately, Caroline was completely out-classed in the Byron contest, in spite of her numerous and increasingly brazen attempts to recover his interest. The affair was over by the end of 1812; unfortunately, Caroline didn’t know it.

This was a tumultuous time for all concerned, with Caroline continuing her brazen behaviour and her pursuit of Byron, Byron’s relationships with his wife and half-sister becoming more bizarre, and Lady Melbourne still in touch with all. In 1816, William had almost reached the end of his tether, and (to the he relief, if not the pleasure, of his family) was on the brink of giving up on Caroline, Byron’s marriage to Annabella was falling apart, and everyone was exhausted. In the midst of the drama, Lord Melbourne achieved his peerage as Baron Melbourne in 1815. In April of 1816, Byron left England and William was ready to break with Caroline, to the pleasure of many, especially Lady Byron and his sister Emily. The straw that almost finished it was Caroline’s novel, GLENARVON, in which Caroline portrayed herself as the innocent victim of her husband and all of society (with recognizable portraits of friends and family). Caroline was basically cast out by society, and almost cast out by William. In spite of Lady Melbourne’s best efforts and the wishes of his family, he kept her as his wife until she died.

This long-running serial of her battle with her daughter-in-law (who was really not an equal combatant), I believe, shows all of Lady Melbourne’s least attractive traits: she was determined to dominate, overwhelmingly ambitious, certain she knew best, and willing to do whatever it took to accomplish her ends. She was cynical, hard and unconcerned with morality once she had decided what she wanted. This pattern continued throughout her life; she was less concerned with right than with expedience. She was shrewd and ambitious for her family, but somehow heartless.

Lady Melbourne died April 6, 1818 at Melbourne House in Whitehall. It was a protracted and painful death, attributed to rheumatism. All of her children except Frederick seemed to have been present. She was buried at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. At the time of her death, none of her children had lived up to her ambitions for them. That lay all in the future: William resume his political career and became Prime Minister for Victoria; Emily married her lover Lord Palmerston (with Queen Victoria’s permission) and became the wife of a prime minister. Lord Melbourne, her husband outlived her, passing away in 1828.

Sources include:

Blyth, Henry. CARO The Fatal Passion. New York, Coward McCann & Geoghegan Inc.: 1972.

Cecil, David. The Young Melbourne. Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York: 1939.

Douglass, Paul. Lady Caroline Lamb, A Biography. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 2004.

Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. New York, Random House: 1998.

Gross, Jonathan David, ed. Byron’s “Corbeau Blanc” The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne. Texas A & M, 1998 (original published by Rice University, 1998).

History and Other Thoughts blog. “Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne.” Read here.
World of the Marchioness blog. “Caroline Lamb: Family Connections-Brocket Hall.” August 17, 2014. Read here.

Image Attributions: 

The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, from Wikimedia Commons here.

Peniston Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.

Caroline Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.


Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, released in 2011, and is working on A RATIONAL ATTACMENT, due out later this year. A long-time resident of Florida, she lives with her husband. Visit her website here for more information.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Tudor England's Most Infamous Villain: Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez

by Beth von Staats

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
(Hans Holbein the Younger)

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Essex -- was there ever a more manipulative man in 16th century British history? Simply stated, no. In fact, many historians would be hard pressed to find any British man who walked the earth with less redeeming qualities. With no moral center, not even the zealous religious fanaticism common for the era, the Baron Rich of Leez lived his life flip-flopping to the whims of the monarchs he served, resourcefully allying with and then stepping on anyone in his way to advancement and wealth.

Unfortunately for many in the realm, Rich was long-lived, spreading his venom throughout the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I, amazingly remaining unscathed. With the varying political and religious agendas of these monarchs, ranging from staunch Roman Catholicism to near Calvinist Protestantism and everything in between, just how did he pull this off? Well let us count the ways through this admittedly incomplete list.

Ten Dastardly Deeds of Sir Richard Rich

Saint John Fisher
1. Sir Richard Rich, by 1535 Attorney General of Wales and Solicitor General of England, is famously known for his persecution of those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy during the reign of King Henry VIII, a vow that assured the King was the acknowledged Head of the Church in England inclusive of the clergy and all religious liturgy and tenants. In the case of Bishop John Fisher, Rich tricked the man into admitting his loyalty to the Roman Catholic papacy, promising to tell no one. Rich then testified to Fisher's statements at trial.

In Thomas More's case, Rich flat out lied to the same. Thomas More reportedly told him at trial, "In faith, Mr. Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril, and you shall understand that neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you."

Though the source of the quote is actually from More's son-in-law William Roper, truer words were never spoken. Both Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were executed by decapitation for high treason based on Rich's dubious testimony.

Ruins of Holywell Priory, Middlesex

2. In 1536, along with his other titles, Sir Richard Rich was appointed Chancellor of the newly created Court of Augmentations. In this role, he worked in partnership with the Vice-gerant and King's Principal Secretary Thomas Cromwell to dissolve all abbeys, monasteries and nunneries in England and Wales, displacing thousands and completely upending a way of life going back centuries.

What did Sir Richard Rich have to gain by this? Well, he acquired wealth and territories, of course. At bargain basement prices, he procured the monastery at St. Bartholomew, the priory of Leez, the manors of Lighes Parva, Magna Lighes, Folsetd and Fyfield in Essex. Not satisfied, he added to his land gains by procuring the nunnery of St. Bride at Syon, several manors in Essex once belonging to Christ Church, Canterbury and several more manors once owned by St. Osth's at Chic and the Holywell Priory, Middlesex.

Our Baron Rich of Leez was on his way.

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
3. In 1540, Sir Richard Rich turned on his close ally and benefactor of his great wealth and land acquisitions, again performing commendably as a "chief witness", this time against Thomas Cromwell, who was just four months earlier elevated to Earl of Essex. Cromwell was soon executed by decapitation for sacramentary heresy and treason, the charges and testimony falsified.

Thomas Cromwell made his opinions of Rich known to King Henry VIII in a letter after his arrest. From prison he wrote, "What master chancellor has been to me, God and he knows best; what I have been to him your Majesty knows."

The Baron of Leez was "off the hook" for perjuring himself in court this time, though. Cromwell was condemned on attainder, thus Rich's lies were solely to Parliament, the Privy Council and the King.

4. Sir Richard Rich was an incredibly resourceful villain. As King Henry VIII's religious views swayed from evangelical to conservative and back again, Rich went along for the ride, playing the role of henchman brilliantly. In July 1540, on the heels of Cromwell's execution, three men were burned at the stake, declared heretics for preaching doctrines opposed to King Henry's Six Articles of Faith.

On the same day -- that's right, the same day -- three more men were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the Royal Supremacy. Think about that for a minute. Three Evangelicals and three Roman Catholics were put to death at the hands of Sir Richard Rich on the same day. Was there anyone more expert in riding the waves of King Henry VIII's ever changing religious doctrine? I think not.

Perhaps Queen Catherine Howard
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
5. Well, yes, this time in 1541 the parties were actually guilty of wrong doing both from a legal and moral standpoint, so perhaps we can give Sir Richard Rich the benefit of the doubt that his extensive involvement in the fall of Queen Catherine Howard, as well as his participation in the special Commission for the trials of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, were solely done for the benefit of the King's honor and the realm's security.

If you are shaking your head disbelievingly, I don't blame you.

6. In 1546, the Baron of Leez was a busy guy. Along with Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Rich engaged in a witch hunt, working to discredit and upend minor evangelicals in the hopes of snagging the major players, most notably Katherine Parr, Queen of England; Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
One such "minor evangelical" was martyred preacher Anne Askew. Unwilling to testify with whom she associated, Sir Richard Rich and his cohort Wriothesley tortured the woman, racking her by turning the wheeled levers themselves. To punctuate the evilness of the act, the Constable of the Tower of London refused to participate and rushed to court to inform the king. Before he could gain an audience, the damage was done. Anne Askew became the only known women to ever be tortured at the Tower of London in its' over thousand year history.

With arms, legs, elbows and knees dislocated from the rack, Anne Askew was burned at the stake on July 16, 1546.

William Paulet,
1st Marquess of Winchester
(Hans Eworth)
7. Upon the death of King Henry VIII and ascension of King Edward VI in 1547, Sir Richard Rich once again did what he did best, turn on one of his closest allies to seek his own advancement. To reach his goal, Rich successfully worked with his other "allies of the moment" and secured the fall of his "interrogation and torture partner" Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley.

Things did not work out quite as planned. William Paulet was appointed in Wriothesley's place. No problem -- Baron Rich of Leez quickly convinced Lord Protector Edward Seymour and the Privy Council of Paulet's "incompetence", securing the Lord Chancellorship for himself.

8. Throughout the reign of King Edward VI, Lord Chancellor Rich was a "staunch Protestant". Thus, along with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, he insured the destruction of all "images and idols" in the realm's churches. Throughout the realm great roods and stained glass were destroyed. All church and abbey walls were white washed, covering priceless works of art replaced with the Ten Commandments -- in English, of course.

Stephen Gardiner
 Bishop of Winchester
Just how "staunch" was Rich's Protestantism? Baron Rich of Leez was heavily involved in proceedings leading to the arrests and imprisonments of conservative and later avowed Roman Catholics, Bishop Edmund Bonner and Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Taking things a step further, in his role as Lord Chancellor, Rich worked tirelessly to insure the Eucharist mass was not celebrated, arresting those performing mass for the ever defiant Lady Mary Tudor.

Sir Richard Rich dutifully delivered a letter to the King's Roman Catholic sister from Edward VI himself commanding her to cease and desist. The Lady Mary's response? She commanded that Rich keep his lecturing short. Her celebration of the Eucharist continued.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
9. What goes around comes around, even for the brilliantly manipulative Sir Richard Rich. In December 1551, he was compelled to resign his long sought powerful position as Lord Chancellor of England and Wales, feigning illness. The poor man took to his bed at at his estate at St. Bartholomew's.

Why? Like those in modern times who carelessly hit the "send button" before insuring they are emailing or private messaging the correct person, a befriending letter of manipulative warning intended to be sent to the imprisoned Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset was delivered instead to the also imprisoned Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

I suppose addressing the wax sealed parchment "The Duke" was not quite specific enough for a missive sent to the Tower of London. After all, throughout Tudor history, there always seemed to be a few Dukes, Earls or Barons in the pokey.

What a great opportunity for Norfolk to gain potential release! Though ultimately unsuccessful (for now), the Duke sent the missive along to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Rich's days as Lord Chancellor were over.

Phew! Finally we are done with him. Or are we?

10. Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor were usurped in favor of the King's cousin, Jane Dudley. Sir Richard Rich was solicited for support of the new queen. Knowing this was his chance to regain power within the realm, the Baron of Leez did what he is now infamous for. Rich flipped his support to whom he gauged would ultimately reign and proclaimed his loyalty to the woman he previously persecuted, Mary Tudor.

Queen Mary Tudor
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
The Baron of Leez always the ultimate host, Queen Mary Tudor spent a few days visiting with Rich and his family at his home in Wanstead before heading to London to take her rightful crown.

What was Sir Richard Rich's most noteworthy service to the realm in Queen Mary's reign? This should come as no surprise. Baron Rich, loyal subject that he was, became one of Queen Mary's most active persecutors, orchestrating the arrest and execution by burning of all convicted Protestant "heretics" in his home county of Essex.

Perhaps to make amends for his previous work as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, the Baron of Leez worked towards the large and unfinished task of restoring the monasteries. He granted the Queen what remained of the monastery at St. Bartholomew, where she established Black Friars.

Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
Felsted Church, Essex
After five years supporting the Roman Catholic agenda of Queen Mary Tudor, Sir Richard Rich rode into London with Queen Elizabeth Tudor when she ascended the throne. In his likely only act showing disagreement with a reigning monarch, Rich refused to support Queen Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity, voting against it in Parliament's House of Lords in 1559 with the Roman Catholic minority. 

Sir Richard Rich mellowed in his last years, perhaps in penance and preparation for meeting his God. The Baron of Leez founded a grammar school in Felsted, which in time educated two sons of Oliver Cromwell. He also founded almshouses to care for the poor and built the tower of Rochford Church.

The father of at least 15 children, 11 legitimate from his long suffering wife and at least 4 known bastards, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, died on June 12, 1567. He rests under his magnificent, albeit disconcerting tomb and statue at Felsted Church, Essex.

The "resting place" of Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez.

Do you have other stories detailing the manipulations and evilness of Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez? If so, feel free to share them in the comment section below.

Author Unidentified, Chapter X: Sir Richard Rich, British History Online

Author Unidentified, Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, Luminarium Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors. The article notes that it was excerpted from the following: 1. Pollard, A. F. "Richard Rich, first Baron Rich."; 2. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XVI. Sidney Lee, ed.; and 3. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 1009-1012.


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 


This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on July 23, 2014.