A Tragic Day at Pontefract

On June 25, 1483, three men were executed at Pontefract Castle. They were Anthony Woodville, Lord Rivers, the new king’s maternal uncle; Richard Grey, the king’s half-brother; and Thomas Vaughan, the king’s chamberlain, who had served him since infancy. They were beheaded on orders of the king’s sworn protector, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who would shortly be crowned himself instead.

The events that led to the executions began on April 9, 1483, with the death of Edward IV. Edward V was but twelve years of age at the time of his father’s death. The chronicler Mancini indicates that Edward IV had named his brother Richard in his will as the young king’s protector, but the Crowland chronicler does not indicate any such arrangement, and Edward IV’s will is not extant to confirm or deny it. What emerges when Mancini and Crowland’s accounts are read together is that Edward IV’s councilors did not want the family of the queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to dominate the new king’s government, but that some were also reluctant to see Gloucester in sole control. The councilors did agree on a coronation date of May 4, and Crowland reports that Elizabeth Woodville advised her brother Rivers, who would be taking Edward IV to London, to appease the opposition on the council by having no more than two thousand men escort the new king into London.

Both Edward V himself and Richard were far away from London when Edward IV died. Edward V was with his household at Ludlow, under the supervision of Rivers. Richard was at Middleham in the north, where his power base lay. Both men began heading toward London, as did the Duke of Buckingham. Though Buckingham was a wealthy man, he had never played a prominent part in the government of Edward IV, and he seems to have seized upon the death of Edward IV as an opportunity to extend his influence.

According to Mancini, Gloucester, Buckingham, and Rivers had agreed to meet somewhere along the way so that the king’s entry to the city might be more magnificent. On April 29, Gloucester and Buckingham each arrived at Northampton, while Rivers, along with the king and his escort, went further south to Stony Stratford. Crowland adds the detail that the king was awaiting Richard at Stony Stratford with a small household, having dispersed most of his attendants even closer to the city so that there would be more space for his uncle when he arrived.

Leaving the king behind at Stony Stratford, Rivers, and perhaps Richard Grey, backtracked to Northampton and met Gloucester and Buckingham there. By all accounts, the men passed a convivial evening, and Rivers stayed the night. He could not have suspected that it was the last night he would spend as a free man. But that was the case: the next morning, either upon waking (Mancini) or on the way back to the king at Stony Stratford (Crowland), Rivers was taken prisoner by Gloucester and Buckingham.

Richard Grey was also taken prisoner on April 30, either at the same time as Rivers or later in Stony Stratford, where Gloucester and Buckingham rode to meet the king. There, Edward V’s chamberlain, Thomas Vaughan, was also seized. The shocked king was informed by Gloucester and Buckingham that his attendants were conspiring against him and that Gloucester was the man best suited to serve as protector. According to Mancini, Edward V made a spirited speech in defense of his men, but realized that he had no choice but to agree to Gloucester’s plans for him. The royal attendants who had not been arrested were ordered to disperse. Leaderless without Rivers, they obeyed.

Gloucester, Buckingham, and the king proceeded to London, reaching it the day of the planned coronation, which never took place. In response to reports that he had seized the king with the intent of gaining his crown, Gloucester had sent letters to the council and to the mayor of London stating that he had rescued the king from his enemies. Gloucester also put four cartloads of weapons in front of the king’s procession, claiming that they had been stored outside the capital by the queen’s family to use against Gloucester himself. Mancini reported that many knew this charge to be false, as the weapons had been stored when war was being waged against Scotland.

Was there a conspiracy to ambush Gloucester? The evidence was insufficient to convince the council, which accepted Gloucester as protector but balked at his demand that Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan be executed immediately. The council pointed out that not only was there “no certain case” with regard to the alleged ambush, any ambush would not have been treason at the time because Gloucester held no public office then.

Richard III’s apologists, however, have proven easier to convince than the council. Paul Murray Kendall, although he acknowledges in a footnote that there is no proof that Rivers had bound himself to meet Richard at Northampton, nonetheless finds much of sinister import in Rivers’ pressing on to Stony Stratford. He suggests that Rivers was determined to rush Edward V on to London so that he could be crowned and Richard’s power extinguished. Kendall also speculates that Richard Grey, who had been in London for the council deliberations but who had left the city to meet the king, was entrusted with a message from the queen urging Rivers to bring the king to London in all due haste. Grey, however, was a member of Edward V’s household and could have had any number of reasons for his trip northward to meet the king. Perhaps he was simply fond of the king, his younger half-brother, and wanted to join him in his entry into London.

Rivers’ actions at Northampton, as a number of historians have pointed out, are hardly consistent with Kendall’s thesis or with any other ill intent toward Gloucester. Had Rivers truly intended to hasten to London and crown the king before Richard could get to him and assume his office as protector, why on earth did he travel to Northampton to greet Richard and Buckingham, then spend the night? Evidence of an ambush is also seriously lacking (even Kendall seems to have been hard pressed to find any). Certainly the king’s men at Stony Stratford, assuming that they were there in force and not dispersed among far-flung lodgings, do not appear to have been prepared for a fight, given the apparent meekness with which they obeyed Gloucester’s orders to disband. The armor displayed by Gloucester, if it indeed belonged to the Woodvilles, may have been nothing more than the normal equipage of the men who were to have come to London with the king.

Plot or no plot, before Gloucester proceeded on to London with his new charge the king, he sent his prisoners Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan north, Rivers to Sheriff Hutton, Grey to Middleham, and Vaughan to Pontefract. Richard Haute, Edward V’s comptroller, seems to have been arrested and imprisoned as well, though he was apparently pardoned.

What happened next is well known. Plans, in good faith or otherwise, were made for Edward V’s coronation, and Edward V was lodged in the Tower, soon to be joined by his younger brother. On June 13, 1483, William Hastings, Edward IV’s chamberlain and closest friend, was executed without trial. Soon thereafter, it was put about first that Edward IV was a bastard, then (more successfully) that he had been pre-contracted to an Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and that the children of that marriage were therefore bastards. With Edward V’s impending deposition and the council terrorized into docility by the execution of Hastings and the arrests of others, there was nothing standing in the way of the executions of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan. The future Richard III therefore ordered their deaths.

Of the three prisoners, Anthony Woodville is the best known. In 1473, he had been appointed as governor to the three-year-old Edward V. Though he was highly cultivated, pious, and known for his chivalric interests, he possessed worldly qualities as well and does not seem to have been overly scrupulous, a trait that he of course shared with many of his contemporaries.

Considerably less is known about the other two men. Richard Grey, Elizabeth Woodville’s younger son by her first husband, was probably in his twenties at the time of his death. He was knighted in 1475, alongside his older brother and his royal half-brothers, and came of age around 1476. In 1478 he cut a fine figure at a tournament held to celebrate the marriage of four-year-old Richard, Duke of York, to six-year-old Anne Mowbray. Little is known of his personality, though this has not stopped Richard’s apologists from assuming that he deserved his fate because of his family background or that he was incompetent to fill his duties. Michael Hicks describes him as being “the most visible Wydeville in Wales in the mid-1470s” due to his service on local commissions of the peace. Never married, he was granted the lordship of Kidwelly and in early 1483 had been a beneficiary of a questionable arrangement, sanctioned by an Act of Parliament, under which he would receive 500 marks per year out of the Holland inheritance.

Thomas Vaughan, in his fifties at his death, had been a royal servant since the 1440’s and loyal to the Yorkist cause for well over two decades. Having held a number of responsible positions during his career in royal service, he had been Edward V’s chamberlain since July 1471, when his charge was still a baby. A soldier who had fought in numerous battles, he carried the little Edward in his arms on state occasions and was knighted at the same time as his charge in 1475. Having spent most of the past decade with the young prince at Ludlow, far from the politics of court, of those who died at Pontefract, he had probably least suspected that he would end his days at the stroke of an axe.

In the days before their executions, Rivers and Grey were moved to join Vaughan at Pontefract, where the Earl of Northumberland and Sir Richard Ratcliff presided over their executions, witnessed by troops making their way toward London at Gloucester’s command in case trouble arose over Gloucester’s claim to the throne. Neither Crowland nor Mancini indicates that the three men received any sort of trial; though a comment by Rous that Northumberland served as their “judge” suggests it. Rivers, however, had made his will on June 23, while still at Sheriff Hutton. This, and more especially the ballad he wrote (“Such is my dance / Willing to die”) indicates that he knew that if he did receive a trial, it would be purely for show.

Some sources report Vaughan on his way to the block as speaking of a prophecy that “G” would destroy Edward IV’s children, but it is highly unlikely that any of the men would have been allowed to hold forth in this fashion with an audience present. Probably the prisoners were silent as they were led to the block or confined their words to prayer.

The beheaded bodies were supposedly stripped and thrown into a common grave at Pontefract. This report may not be altogether true, though, as Vaughan ultimately came to rest in Westminster Abbey. It is possible, of course, that his body was retrieved after Richard III’s own fall. The inscription on his tomb read, “To love and wait upon,” a motto that describes Vaughan’s service far more aptly than Richard’s “Loyaulte me lie.” By executing with little or no cause the men to whom his brother Edward IV had entrusted the care of his son, Richard had proven his loyalty to his brother and to his brother’s heir to be a very transient thing.

6 thoughts on “A Tragic Day at Pontefract”

  1. Great post, really informative! The executions of these men, and of Hastings, do look pretty bad for Richard III, in my opinion. However, I’m sure there are people who could make a case that Rivers, Grey and Vaughan simply walked under the executioner’s axe and that Saint Richard did absolutely nothing wrong.

    As an aside, I wonder why Elizabeth Woodville didn’t find a wealthy bride for her younger Grey son? Had she used up all the eligible heiresses on her other son and brothers?! 🙂

  2. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks! I was wondering about the bride thing myself. You would think Elizabeth could have found some old lady to marry her son off to as a starter bride, if nothing else!

  3. Maybe he could have married the widowed Duchess of Norfolk, after John Woodville was beheaded. 😉 She was only, what, about 60 years older than he was?! The odd thing is, she outlived him too!

  4. Susan Higginbotham

    I’ve often wondered what the marriage between the Duchess and Woodville was like. She was a tough old buzzard from what I’ve read, and I don’t picture her putting up with much guff from him. He probably said, “Yes, dear,” quite a bit.

  5. I believe the Duchess was famously referred to as a ‘slip of a girl’ at the time of the wedding! Elizabeth’s elder Grey son, the Marquess of Dorset, married firstly Anne Holland, nicece of Edward IV, but she died young and childless and his second wife was Cecilia/Cecily/Cicely Bonville, Baroness Bonville and Hartington, granddaughter of Richard Neville, Earl of Salisbury (1400-1460). I’ve also wondered why a similar marriage wasn’t arranged for Richard Grey!

  6. Susan Higginbotham

    Thanks for stopping by, Liam! It’s very odd about Richard Grey’s failure to marry. I wonder what he was thinking?

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