The Town of Reading in The Wars of the Roses- Guest Post by Jo Romero

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)

Reading Abbey ruins, © Jo Romero

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)

The Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, from the Anciennes Chroniques, Jean de Wavrin, c1470-1480. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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.

Notes

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].

9Milan: 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].

13 The 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.

A Riot, a Dog and The George Hotel in Reading- Guest Post by Jo Romero

Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.

Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.

Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey –  the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.

Photograph of The George by Jo Romero

Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.

Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.

All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:

“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)

At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?

A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?

While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)

Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)

The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.

The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)

For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.

It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.

Notes:

  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
  2. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
  3. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
  4. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
  5. Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
  6. The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.