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].
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.