This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
Hi everyone, apologies for the silence over the last few months. You may remember that my deadline for my Anthony Woodville biography was coming up. It was originally 1 May, but around Easter, I caught Covid and was quite poorly with it, which meant I had to ask for an extension. Thankfully my publishers gave me an extra month, which has helped so much, but it’s been a lot of hard work to get it done, but I’ve finally managed it and it’s now ready to send to the publishers.
After nearly 8 years of researching the life of Anthony Woodville, it feels strange that the book is a step closer to being out there. Of course I will update you when I know more. I want to give a massive thank you to Amberley Publishing for the opportunity they’ve given me.
Thankfully though, I think it means that I can get back to blogging and other research. I have missed delving into lots of different things, so I hope you will enjoy some of the things that will be coming up.
I just wanted to offer a bit of an apology for my lack of content in the last few months. As some of you might know, I am currently writing a biography of Anthony Woodville, brother-in-law to Edward IV, for Amberley Publishing. My deadline is 1 May, so as you can imagine, this is taking up all my time at the moment. I have so far written 68,000 words of the 80,000 word total, so there’s still a bit to go. Fingers crossed I can get things all sorted for the deadline.
The images have probably been the hardest thing to deal with as I have had to find copyright free images that I don’t have to pay for. As there is only one known image of Anthony (an engraved version is shown below) and many of the places he once knew are either no longer in existence, or have changed so much, photographs have also been a bit difficult. Still, I have been researching Anthony’s life now for around seven or eight years, so I can’t give up at the last hurdle.
I still have tons of ideas to share with you though, ranging from the Wild West, women’s history and architectural history. All this and more will recommence after the book has been handed in to the publishers. Thanks again for all your support with everything so far and hopefully you will continue reading once things are back on track.
As some of you will already know, I’m currently writing a biography on Anthony Woodville, a fifteenth century knight and man of letters, who was the brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and brother-in-law of Edward IV. It should be out sometime next year, when it’s finished that is! This was the inspiration for a weekend away in Ludlow, Shropshire, mainly to go back to the castle there and take photographs of it for the book. Anthony was the head of the household of Edward, Prince of Wales, his nephew, who lived there for ten years until 1483. I have visited before, back in 2018, but it was great to be back in much better weather than before, but also to think about it in terms of what Anthony’s experience there would have been like. I don’t think we could have timed it better as we had the warmest weekend in March since the 1920s! Anyway, as I did a lot of history related things and enjoyed every minute of it, I thought I’d share what we did whilst there.
We stayed on the grounds of Ludlow Castle inside what is known as Castle House. This part of the castle is along the entrance, and includes what is now the café, gallery shop, and the apartments where I stayed with my parents and sister. There are three apartments you can stay in, all suitably named after people connected with the castle. Our apartment, named Arthur and Catherine after Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, who honeymooned at the castle after their wedding, had beautiful views looking towards the rest of the castle and out across the Shropshire countryside. I’m not going to deny that the accommodation was expensive, but this visit was a once in a lifetime chance to stay at a place I’m writing and researching about. I’m really glad I did as the apartment was lovely and very spacious. The views and peacefulness, whilst being right in the centre of town and only a walk away from everything, was fantastic as well. If you would like to stay in Ludlow yourself, there are lots of other great options around the town and last time, we did stay in a pub just 15 minutes away, which was also a good place to stay.
The first place we visited was Stokesay Castle, which is owned by English Heritage. I had also previously visited here, but was keen to go back as even though it is a small site, it has a lovely and somewhat homely atmosphere. Stokesay was built at the end of the thirteenth century by Laurence of Ludlow, a local wealthy merchant, said to have been one of the wealthiest men at the time. It’s survival is wonderful and really makes you feel what medieval life would have been like. It also underwent renovations during the Stuart era, so look out for the seventeenth century panelling in the Solar, which would have been the private area of the castle. As someone who loves both the medieval and Stuart periods, I must admit I was a little in my element. Also remember the lovely Stuart era gatehouse, which someone kindly told me that until English Heritage took over the site fully, the lady who granted them part ownership still lived in this part until her death in 1992. This whole place is really so photogenic though, so do make sure you’ve got your camera!
We also went inside the church next door. It was very small as it once served as the chapel for Stokesay Castle. Despite its size but just wonderfully formed. Despite enduring the English Civil War, the church was not wrecked by the Puritans and is an excellent example of how seventeenth century churches would look, complete with original box pews. Sorry to sound a bit nerdy, but I must admit I got excited by this as it’s the first time I remember ever seeing proper box pews. As well as the pews, there are also wall paintings of the ten commandments, another rarity in English churches. Another thing to keep an eye out for is some of the interesting gravestones and memorials dotted around the churchyard. Make sure you have a read of the ones with coats of arms that are on the side of the church, there’s a wonderful story about an incredibly long marriage for the time.
Of course we also visited Ludlow Castle itself. As we stayed in the apartments, we got free entry, so that was a plus sign. It also meant we didn’t have the worry of how long we would be there for as we only had to walk around the corner back to our apartment. The castle itself dates back to Norman period, when it was founded by the de Lacy family. Due to the age of the site, it’s impossible to go through the entire history of the castle, but the reason I have a particular interest in it was that it was a Yorkist stronghold during the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, had inherited the castle from his Mortimer family ancestors. He established it as the administrative base for his lands in the region. In 1459, Richard was in the castle, with his forces preparing for the Battle of Ludford Bridge, named after one of the bridges into Ludlow. However, the Yorkists retreated before any serious action, as they feared being outnumbered. When his eldest son, Edward, became King Edward IV, the castle reverted into Royal hands. As mentioned previously, Edward chose the castle as the place to bring up his heir, Prince Edward, under the guidance of his uncle, Anthony Woodville, and others. The castle is perhaps best known as the deathplace of Prince Arthur, the eldest brother of Henry VIII.
Ludlow Castle is now a ruin as it was neglected after the Council of the Marches, the administrative body set up to rule Welsh borders, was removed in 1641, around two hundred years after its creation. However, I must admit they are picturesque ruins! If possible, I would recommend talking the footpath that goes round the side of the castle and down to the river. This gives lovely views and also goes down to Dinham Bridge, another ancient bridge. If you walk down to either this bridge or Ludford Bridge, you will walk past lots of historic buildings. I’ve never seen so many blue plaques, which detail the history behind them. Mostly they are a mix of medieval or Tudor, with lots of Georgian ones mixed in. Keep an eye out for the lovely looking Dinham House, which once housed Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was kept under house arrest there.
A short walk away from the castle is the parish church of St Lawrence. This again is a real treat and is such a beautiful place. A church is said to have stood on this site since Saxton times, but most of what you see is a mixture of Norman and Medieval. It is a very impressive church and is famous for the stained glass windows of Richard Duke of York, Edward IV, Prince Edward and Prince Arthur. Prince Arthur’s heart was also buried here after his death, with his body being buried at Worcester Cathedral, just over 30 miles away. Volunteer guides are dotted around to answer any questions you may have, so please make use of their wonderful knowledge.
Ludlow is also full of lots of lovely places to eat, including pubs, cafes and restaurants. There are definitely so many options to choose from, whatever your tastes are. We ate at a place aptly called Aragon’s, which is close to the marketplace. They serve the most wonderful cooked breakfasts there, but we also enjoyed lunch there too. Some in the party commented on how the sausages served were some of the best they’d ever tasted, so that definitely comes highly recommended! The staff were very friendly too, which was an added bonus. Other places to look out for are Vaughan’s, a sandwich bar that also serves salads and jacket potatoes. Many people have commented on their hot pork sandwiches being the best ever, so again give that a go. We wanted to visit, but didn’t quite have the chance this time, but definitely on the list for next time.
As we visited the weekend of Mother’s Day, I had booked a Sunday Carvery at the Fisherman’s Arms in Docklow, a 20 minute drive away from Ludlow. It is a bit of a fisherman’s retreat as there are ponds and woodland walks. There are also places to stay there, as well as a café too. The country pub/restaurant was where we went. I had heard good reviews about the place, but as a visitor, didn’t really know what to expect. All I can say was that we definitely weren’t disappointed. It was by far the biggest carvery portions I think any of us had ever had. The food quality was excellent and so were the staff. We will definitely be going back too, so definitely make this a place to visit if you can.
A market is held on the market place nearly every day, so be sure not to miss that! Last time we visited, they were holding an antique market, which was good quality and had very interesting items. This time it was the general market, which had stallholders selling food, jewellery, antiques, crafted items and all sorts of things. I came away with some lovely jewellery and photographic prints of the places we’d visited. Another shop I also brought from, not far from Aragon’s café, was Nina and Co, a quirky little antique shop. I saw some lovely sparkly brooches in the window that would look lovely for putting on clothing and bonnets for our Regency dressing up at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, where we will be going back for a second time later this year. Thank you to them for also giving us a few free ones, which were missing a stone, but still useable for that. Again all of these were such lovely experiences.
All in all, it was probably one of the best trips I’ve been on. The peacefulness was just what was needed after what have been an awful two years. If you ever get the chance to go yourself, I promise you that you will love it. It feels like stepping back into a bygone era. What makes it all the more enjoyable is just how lovely the people of the area are. The memories I’ve made will certainly stay with me forever.
For more about the places mentioned in this post, please visit the following websites:
Griffiths, Ralph, ‘Wales and the Marches in the Fifteenth Century’, in Chrimes, Stanley; Ross, Charles; Griffiths, Ralph (eds), Fifteenth Century England, 1399–1509: Studies in Politics and Society (Bristol: Sutton Publishing, 1972)
For a short series related to Mary Queen of Scots, I’m pleased to welcome Laura Adkins, creator of The Local History Blogger. I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about sites found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.
This post also follows on from a previous post on the Babington Plot, for which Mary was convicted of treason for exchanging letters. That can be found here. To find out more about Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the plot and arrest Mary for Treason, please click here.
Standing on top of the mound which was once part of the castle of Fotheringhay one feels at peace. The surrounding views of the countryside and the River Nene are picturesque and calming. Unfortunately like many castles, Fotheringhay lost its purpose and was eventually dismantled with its stonework being repurposed elsewhere. Today all that remains is the mound and a piece of stonework. Not much for a place with such a history, one event in particular, the execution of an anointed queen – Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary had been a prisoner in England ever since fleeing Scotland in April 1568. She thought she would get assistance from her cousin Elizabeth I, however, things turned out differently. Mary and Elizabeth were both descended from Henry VII (Elizabeth his granddaughter and Mary his great-granddaughter) and so Mary had a claim to the English throne and more dangerous to Elizabeth she was a Catholic. What led to Elizabeth finally agreeing to execute Mary was the evidence of her part in the Babington plot. A catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Letters were intercepted between Mary and Anthony Babington discussing said plot by Elizabeth’s spy Francis Walsingham and it was these letters that sealed her fate. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay on 25th September 1586.
In its heyday Fotheringhay was the main home of the Dukes of York. It entered the hands of the Earl of Northampton in the 12th century and was incorporated into the Dukedom of York from 1385 which is where it stayed for many centuries. It was where the future King Richard III was born.
Fotheringhay is primarily a motte and bailey castle in design with a double moat. Like many castles, it had a number of changes and developments in its time with the biggest changes by Edmund of Langley (1st Duke of York). He had the castle rebuilt and enlarged. Its shape was that of a fetterlock, the symbol of the Yorks. Within its walls were accommodation suites, kitchens, breweries, bakehouses, drawbridge, chapel, stables and a number of other buildings one expects in the function of a castle estate. Sadly none now remain. The great hall, where the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, was held is thought to be located to the south-east of the mound.
In July 1476 the Castle was host to one of the biggest events in its history – the reburial of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were both killed in the battle of Wakefield with Richard’s head being placed on a pike at Micklegate, York. He was initially buried in Pontefract. Around 1,500 guests would attend the service including the king and royal family, nobles and bishops. Fotheringhay would have never seen anything like it (Hicks, M 2001). It is said that ‘King Edward IV, dressed in a dark blue hooded mourning habit trimmed with fur. The King ‘very humbly did his obeisance to the said body and laid his hand on the body and kissed it, weeping’. (Wakefield historical society)
Nearby the Castle and still in existence today is the New Inn, a beautiful 15th-century farmhouse. This would have been where some of the guests stayed for the reburial. It is even believed that Mary’s executioner may have been there the night before her death.
Maybe the Castle’s life went with Mary on that fateful day of 8th February 1587, Mary had only been informed the previous day that she was to be executed the following morning. ‘this was to be her greatest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail’(Guy, J 2004, p2). Her execution was well documented from her words, actions and what she wore.
About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. (Catholic report of queen mary’s execution by an anonymous “Catholic witness” present at the execution.)
[She asked her servants to] rejoice and pray for her…’
‘… I die a true woman to my religion and like a true scot woman and true french women’ – to Sir Amias Paulet, her steward.
The scaffold was 2 foot high by 12-foot square covered in black cotton sheets. The story goes that It was not one blow of the axe but two in addition to the executioner having to use his dagger to cut through the remaining cartilage which finally removed her head from her body. Upon lifting her head up to show the witnesses her lips were still moving in prayer and her head fell from the executioner’s grasp, revealing a head of grey hair and leaving the auburn wig held aloft.
Although she had lost everything in her life she left behind a son who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth. A king who, if raised by his mother, would most likely have been catholic and brought about a different course of history.
Fotheringhay today may be a peaceful, picturesque location but a place where history was made and the walls may no longer be standing but the earth underneath remembers.
Dunn, J (2004) Elizabeth and Mary. Harper Perennial; London
Guy, J (2004) My heart is my own; London
Hicks, M (2001) Richard III. The History Press; Gloucester.
Licence, A (2015) Cecily Neville. Amberly; Gloucester
Wier, A (2009) Lancaster and York. Vintage Books; London
It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.
Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding
Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.
The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper
This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.
Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe
In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.
Before the Crown by Flora Harding
This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!
Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis
Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.
Things have been a bit hectic here lately with lots of things going off here, so thought it would be best to explain what’s happening. Before I start though, I want to make it clear I will still be blogging, but it may reduce to one post a month from now on. There are still so many stories I want to share, so I will continue doing that for as long as I possibly can do. I also want to take the time to say thank you to all you readers and followers of the blog. It means a lot that people are interested in what I write.
Next week marks the 100th Anniversary of the first Remembrance Day here in the UK and to mark it, I’ll be writing about Walter Tull. He was one of the first black professional footballers and the first black officer in the British Army during World War One. His story is a very special one and it will be an honour to share it with you all.
Some of you regular readers will know about my research into the life of Anthony Woodville, the fifteenth century knight and brother- in-law of Edward IV. I have been doing this on and off for the past 6 or 7 years now, so you can imagine it means a lot to me. Back in June, I was asked, alongside my good friend Michele Schindler, to give a talk on Anthony Woodville and Francis Lovell’s connections to Richard III. This is now available to view on YouTube, so I’m attaching it here for you to watch if you want to.
I was also asked by Rebecca Larson, who runs the Tudor Dynasty podcast, to write an episode on Anthony Woodville. This is now available through any app you listen to podcasts through. If that’s not for you, you can easily listen by using the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vFEs4x9UMzg
There is also some other news that I’ll be announcing next week that I really can’t wait to share with you. It’s been a long time coming, but I hope you’ll be as excited about it as I am. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this content and let me know what you think.
Eltham Palace lays South East of London and is just four miles away from Greenwich. It’s position made it an ideal location for a royal palace, as it was close enough to the capital, but still offered a retreat away from the city. The site was not always a royal palace. It was originally a manor house owned by various bishops until it was gifted to the future Edward II in 1305. Successive monarch spent large amounts of money to alter the palace to their own needs. One of the most considerable alterations was made by Edward IV in the 1470s.
Eltham was one of Edward IV’s favourite residences. With the palace’s proximity to nearby Greenwich Palace, Edward and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, shared their time, together and separately, between the two sites. With the couple spending a lot of their time at the Eltham, upgrades were needed. An extensive building project began, including adding new royal apartments. However, the most significant building added was the Great Hall. Whilst a great hall had existed previously, it didn’t meet Edward’s standard for the rebuild and a new building was required. Before Edward’s time, great halls were places of communal activity throughout the day. However, their function had changed with the addition of separate rooms, reducing the great hall to a space mainly used for large functions and to show off wealth.
The Great Hall was designed by Edward’s chief mason and carpenter in a style influenced by the hall at Westminster, which is now one of the only buildings left of the former Palace of Westminster. It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide, with a large oak roof and high stained glass windows to let in light. It would have originally been lavishly furnished, especially with tapestries. Motifs of Edward’s emblem, the rose en soleil, or rose with a sun, were placed on both sides of the entranceway into the hall. The emblem was itself a mixture of two Yorkist symbols, the white rose, and the sun in splendour, so there was no denying who’s space a guest was walking into.
After the rebuilding at Eltham, Elizabeth gave birth to her second youngest child, Catherine, in 1479, and a year later, Edward moved his substantial library there. This showed just how much the couple valued Eltham’s new buildings, but these would pale in comparison to the new Great Hall’s greatest ever event. At Christmas 1482, Edward held a massive feast for over 2,000 guests. Whilst Edward wouldn’t have known at the time, this ostentatious banquet was to be the last time he visited before his death in April 1483.
Sadly for the palace at Eltham, Edward was the last monarch to consider Eltham as a favourite residence. Henry VII only used it as a nursery for this children, meaning that when his son, Henry VIII became king, he no longer used it much, as his favourite palaces were Greenwich and Hampton Court, which also allowed easy access to London. By the time of the Stuart era, the palace was much neglected, so much so in fact that Charles I was the last ever monarch to visit. Things became even worse after the palace was sold to Nathaniel Rich in 1651. He began to demolish buildings and even stripped the Great Hall’s roof of lead!
It was in this sorry state the site stayed in for around 200 years before anyone took any notice. It had been converted into farm buildings, with the Great Hall being used as a barn. In a strange way, it was this use as a barn that had kept it still standing, although rather ruined. It’s ruined state was looked on romantically, until protests were made to improve the stability of the building. This was done, but with little love for the surviving buildings for the history they portrayed. This is easily seen when it was also regularly used as a tennis court by those who lived nearby.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the millionaire Courtauld family moved in and began restoration work, alongside building a brand new art deco house inspired by the existing architecture, that the building began to be cared for again properly. The stained glass currently in the Great Hall is sadly not original, but was replaced with new glass in the 1930s thanks to the Courtaulds.
Today there is no fear of a return to a state of abandonment for Eltham Palace, not just thanks to the Courtaulds and the threat of bombing during the Second World War. English Heritage, who now own the whole site, originally were given rights to the Great Hall in 1984, and at last it was acknowledged as one of the finest examples of a medieval hall still in existence, for which we also have to thank Edward IV’s design, but also the men who built it.
In this latest guest post, I welcome back Jo Romero. You can view her previous post on a riot, dog and the George Hotel in Reading here.
Jo has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. She has been published in The Historians magazine and runs the blog Love British History where she shares articles, travel and historic sketches.
The Wars of the Roses was defined by the fight for power between Yorkists and Lancastrians and tales of castles, battles and political twists. But how far was a rural, textile-producing town in Berkshire involved in these turbulent events of the fifteenth century?
Reading was a modest but busy town, with a population of around 2,000-3,000 at the mid-fifteenth century.(1) A huddle of timber-framed buildings housed clothiers, butchers, fishmongers and cooks. Its river snaked through the town, and the spires of three Medieval churches pierced its sky.
Taverns and ale houses nudged wonkily into the streets, with names like The Bell, The Bear and The George. These establishments enjoyed custom not only from work-weary locals, but also from pilgrims visiting the town’s abbey, founded in 1121 by Henry I. There were royal visits too, along with a large and wealthy entourage.
And it was here, while locals washed down ale at taverns and haggled over prices at the market, that events concerning the security of the unstable crown played out just yards away.
When plague threatened London, parliament sometimes gathered in the leafier, safer suburbs of Reading Abbey. Henry VI was here in 1451, 1452 and 1453, and Edward IV in 1464 and 1467.(2) Henry VII visited in 1486.
It was during one visit in 1452 that Henry VI requested 13,000 archers for the defence of his realm.(3) Although this was three years before the 1455 ‘official’ start date of the Wars of the Roses, by the time Henry added his seal to this act he and his advisers would have known trouble was brewing: Gascony had been lost, nobles struggled for control over the king and his closest adviser William de la Pole had been beheaded at sea in 1450. The king’s request was enacted at the end of 1457.(4)
As the Wars progressed, Reading itself provided military support to the crown. In November 1462, The Corporation Diary records payment for arrows and “sondyers ye last went to the king”. It’s possible that these soldiers were at The Battle of Towton in March 1461. We know that Edward IV’s army was made up of many supporters from the south and south east and it’s probable that Reading townspeople made up some of the 20,000 Yorkist troops that fought there. The battle site would have been a five-day ride from Reading but we know that soldiers did attend from Berkshire and as far as Dorset.(5)
Although 1487 marks the Battle of Stoke, considered by many the end of the Wars of the Roses, an inventory of Reading’s armour four months later could hint that Henry still had concerns.(6) The town didn’t routinely inspect its armour and it’s possible that this October inventory was driven by a real or perceived threat to royal control. Two years into Henry VII’s reign, security was far from watertight. A new pretender, Perkin Warbeck, would emerge in 1491 and Henry faced trouble in France as well as Scotland in the coming years. While town officials counted steel-plated vests and chain mail in Reading’s town centre, Lambert Simnel and the 1486 Lovell Conspiracy would also have been fresh in Henry’s mind. As historian Thomas Penn writes about the years following Stoke, “old loyalties simmered, and the after-shocks of rebellion rippled on”.(7)
But after-shocks rippled in Reading long before The Battle of Stoke.
In September 1464, Edward IV chose Reading Abbey to publicly introduce his new, secret bride, Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of Lord Rivers. They had married despite him being in negotiations to marry the French princess Bona of Savoy. Elizabeth was led through the abbey past stunned nobles within its cool, stone walls with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘The Kingmaker’) by her side. It’s easy to imagine him barely concealing his rage after working to negotiate a politically advantageous European match for the king and not having been consulted on the secret Woodville marriage. By February it was reported that “King Edward and the Earl of Warwick have come to very great division and war together.”(8)
Reading’s streets buzzed with gossip about the wedding, and there were even plots within the town to have the union dissolved. A Milanese ambassador wrote: “The greater part of the lords and the people in general seem very much dissatisfied at this, and for the sake of finding means to annul it, all the nobles are holding great consultations in the town of Reading, where the king is.”(9) Taverns and street corners around Reading may have been alive then with the angry whispers of exasperated nobles.
Reading Abbey also saw the rise of Elizabeth Woodville’s sister, Margaret, when she married Thomas Fitzalan, heir to the Earl of Arundel here, also in 1464. As the 25-year old Margaret stood solemnly at the abbey’s altar next to her new husband, the October light glinting through the stained glass window, she must have felt stunned: elevated to Countess, Margaret would have four children and lived into her early fifties.(10)
It wasn’t all fairytales and weddings, however. Reading was also the scene of an act of treason that gives an insight into one of the root causes of the conflict.
In 1444, Thomas Kerver walked through the church of Reading abbey with three men, uttering ‘treasonous proposals’ about the government of Henry VI. He was quickly arrested and charged with having “falsely and traitorously… schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king.”(11) Kerver’s sentence was death, although Henry reduced it at the last minute to imprisonment. Kerver’s actions reveal that it wasn’t just the nobility who were disillusioned with Henry as a ruler but a deep-seated disappointment simmered among his subjects, too.
Lastly, Reading has one more, macabre link to the Wars of the Roses.
In 1538 John London wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the canon at Caversham Priory “was accustomed to show many pretty relics, among others the holy dagger that killed King Henry… all these… my servant will bring your Lordship next week.”(12)
There was a reason for glorifying this grisly piece of criminal evidence. Henry VI was said to have been murdered at the Tower of London in 1471. Despite his failings in kingship, he was posthumously adopted as a martyr and considered responsible for a number of miracles, including curing the madness of Geoffrey Braunston’s wife in 1486, restoring Beatrice Shirley from the dead in 1489 and William Cheshire, who “having made a vow to visit the blessed King Henry, was immediately made glad by the restoration of his lost eye.”(13)
Unfortunately, we have no idea what happened to Caversham’s holy dagger after it was spirited out of Reading by London’s servant, or the specific miracles it was said to perform.
At first glance then, it would seem that a small cloth-producing town in the Thames Valley 40 miles from the nearest battle and 45 miles from Westminster would have been insignificant to the development of the Wars of the Roses. But evidence points to Reading’s involvement in royal (and secret) weddings, militia, political tensions – and of course the prized relic: the miracle-performing dagger that was said to have killed a fragile but worshipped king.
1 Joan Dils, Reading: A History. Carnegie Publishing, 2019. Dils uses the 1381 and 1525 tax records to estimate a population of 1,300 in 1381 and 3,400 in 1525. Our figure for the mid-fifteenth century would be somewhere in the middle of these estimates. Page 44.
2 Ibid., p.31. Also Coates, in his History and Antiquities of Reading (1802) adds that Henry VI held parliament here in 1451 and 1452. page 253.
3 Charles Coates, Ibid., page 253.
4 Dan Spencer, The Castle in the Wars of the Roses. Pen and Sword Publishing, 2020.
5 Adrian Waite lists those whose property was confiscated after supporting the Lancastrian side after the Battle of Towton, including ‘Thomas Manning, of New Windsor in Berkshire’. AW History, accessed 18th July 2021.
6 JM Guiding, Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation, vol. 1. J Parker, 1892. p85
7 Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, Penguin, 2012 page 24.
8‘Milan: 1465’, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 115-117. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].
9 ‘Milan: 1464′, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 110-114. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].
10 The Peerage, Margaret Fitzalan, accessed 18 July 2021.
11 C.A.F. Meekings, Thomas Kerver’s Case,1441, The English Historical Review, Volume XC, Issue CCCLV, April 1975, Pages 331–346.
12 ‘Henry VIII: September 1538 16-20’, inLetters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, August-December 1538, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1893), pp. 141-154. British History Online[accessed 18 July 2021].
13The Miracles of King Henry VI: being an account and translation of twenty-three miracles … with introductions by Father Ronald Knox and Shane Leslie. CUP archive. 1923. Pages 39, 50 and 73.
Next month I’ll be giving my first ever live online talk on Anthony Woodville. It will be a joint talk with Michele Schindler, who has written on Francis Lovell, the best friend of Richard III. We will be talking on Anthony and Francis’ connections to Richard III and a bit about their lives too.
The talk is for Be Bold Network, a free organisation that helps connect history teachers with the knowledge they need for the school curriculum. I feel very honoured to be asked to contribute, especially as my own secondary school history teacher wasn’t a very good influence, despite history being my favourite subject.
Sir John Fastolf was a veteran of the Hundred Years War in France. He spent around 30 years there and was often charged with the responsibility of various castles, forts, and towns, as well as being a member of the Duke of Bedford, the Regent of France’s, household. His military career proved to be a profitable one and on his retirement in 1439, aged nearly 60, he built himself great houses. The main one that remains, albeit in ruins, is Caister Castle in Norfolk. I have already done a post on that which can be found here. However, the other place he split his time when he was needed in London for business or other reasons, was Fastolf Place in Southwark.
Fastolf rented the site, which was then known as Dunley Place after a previous family of owners, almost as soon as he returned to England. He must have found it homely as he decided to buy it in 1446 and soon went about renovating it to his own taste. The previous site had a watermill and many houses, but this was all about to change. After the new site was transformed into a modern moated manor house, it had a wharf to move people and goods up the Thames, gardens, drawbridge, stables, bakehouse, and larder house. The amount of money he spent on it shows just how much money he had acquired from his time in France. To buy the place he paid £546, 13 shillings and 4 pence (around £351,500 in today’s money); the renovations cost £1,000 (or around £643,000 today).
Fastolf Place had a varied history. Before it was a private residence, it had once been a nunnery, but even in Fastolf’s lifetime, it had changed from peaceful surroundings, to one of turmoil. With the accession of Henry VI, the wars in France that had been such a huge part of Fastolf’s life were slowly coming apart. The English possession in Northern France, particularly Normandy, had reverted to French hands. This was upsetting for large parts of the general populous who had seen Normandy as an English right. Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 was partly fuelled by this upheaval. These rebels marched and occupied London, hoping that the Government would do something about the demands they had. Fastolf wasn’t immune to this as Fastolf Place was threatened by the rebels as they claimed Fastolf was a traitor for being a part of the Normandy army, despite being retired for some time by 1450. It was only because of a servant who risked his life and was himself threatened with having his head cut off, that saved the residence.
John Fastolf died at Fastolf Place on the 5th of November 1459 aged 79, but that was not the end of the building’s history. It passed onto the Bishop of Winchester, William Waynflete, who founded Magdalen College at the University of Oxford. He finally sold the site to give money to the college in 1484, but not before he had briefly rented the house out to Cecily, the Duchess of York, in the late summer of 1460. Both she and her youngest children, George (future Duke of Clarence), Richard (future Richard III), and Margaret (future Duchess of Burgundy), used the house as a safe place following the Yorkish victory at the Battle of Northampton in July 1460. This was probably thought to be a safer place to stay than anywhere closer to the City of London. Cecily didn’t stay there long but left her children behind in the care of the household and their older brother Edward, Earl of March (future Edward IV), who visited them there every day.
After the house left the ownership of the Bishop of Winchester, it passed through many tenants, including Sir Thomas Cockayne of Ashbourne in Derbyshire during Edward VI’s reign. These types of people were on a similar social standing to John Fastolf, so there is certainly some continuation there. The last mention there is to the house Fastolf knew was in a lease in 1663. When excavations took place in the area surrounding the known site of the townhouse in the 1980s and 1990s, remains of it were never found, suggesting that anything that was left over had been destroyed by later building projects.
Whilst there are no remains of Fastolf Place, other buildings owned by John Fastolf in the Southwark area did last longer. He owned some houses and a pub known as the Boar’s Head along the Borough High Street of Southwark. The Boar’s Head was part of a court of buildings which made up the pub and 10 to 12 houses. All of these were owned by Fastolf after his return to England. These remained until 1830 when they were demolished to make way for extensions of nearby St Thomas’ Hospital.
 Cooper, S., The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2010), p. 37.