A few days ago, I was thumbing through a Ricardian novel and noticed a scene where Richard III’s oldest sister, Anne, begs him to spare her husband, Thomas St. Leger, from execution for his participation in the rebellion of 1483. I call this sort of episode in historical fiction a “Dead Man Walking” scene, because Anne couldn’t have begged for her husband’s life or anyone else’s in 1483: she died in 1476. (One suspects that if Anne’s ghost had been the one begging for St. Leger’s life, Richard might have been more inclined to give way.)
So who was this little-known royal sister?
Anne, Duchess of Exeter, was the oldest of the children of Richard, Duke of York, and Cecily Neville. She was born on August 10, 1439, at Fotheringhay—the same castle in which her youngest surviving sibling, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, would be born in 1452. In 1446, when she was six, she was married to fifteen-year-old Henry Holland, who would shortly become the second Duke of Exeter. The Duke of York offered a large marriage portion—4,500 marks–probably because Henry VI was childless at the time, putting the young Henry Holland in line for the throne. Only 1,000 marks of the portion were paid. It was a poor investment in any case, for Exeter proved to be solidly Lancastrian. He also seems to have been exceptionally quarrelsome, falling out with his father-in-law and with all manner of people during the 1450’s and serving time in the Tower. Among those with whom he seems not to have gotten on well with was his own wife. The couple had one child, Anne Holland, but evidently lived most of their lives apart.
Exeter was attainted in 1461 and eventually joined Margaret of Anjou in exile abroad. Meanwhile, the Duchess of Exeter was granted the duke’s Holland inheritance for life. For a brief time beginning in 1464, she had the custody of the nine-year-old Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, a ward of the crown. Edward IV married Elizabeth Woodville later that year. Probably around Easter 1465, he transferred Harry to the care of his queen, whose youngest sister Harry married.
The Duchess of Exeter’s young daughter, Anne, had been promised in marriage to George Neville, a nephew of Richard Neville, the Earl of Warwick. George at the time had the potential to be a quite wealthy young man, as the Earl of Warwick had no sons and the Neville lands were entailed in the male line. Elizabeth Woodville, however, wanted the heiress Anne for her own eldest son, Thomas Grey. She paid the Duchess of Exeter 4,000 marks to break the contract with the Neville family. This was certainly sharp business practice on the queen’s part, but it was hardly unusual for the times: rich young heirs and heiresses were hot commodities. Certainly Elizabeth could not have made the arrangement without the approval of Edward IV, the Duchess of Exeter’s brother. The Duchess of Exeter was no less keen to look after her own interests than the queen: as part of the marriage arrangements, the Holland inheritance was settled on little Anne, with a remainder interest in the duchess herself and in the heirs of her own body.
During the Readeption of Henry VI in 1471, the Duke of Exeter moved back into his London house of Coldharbour, which had been granted to the Duchess of Exeter during his exile. Probably the Duchess of Exeter prudently took herself off to one of her other residences during this period.
The Duke of Exeter fought with the Earl of Warwick at Barnet in 1471. There he was badly injured and was left for dead on the battlefield until a servant discovered signs of life in him and took him to a surgeon. He was later smuggled into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey, but Edward IV removed him and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. While her husband was still a prisoner, in 1472, the Duchess of Exeter took the opportunity to have their marriage annulled. Presumably the Church did not recognize allegiance to the house of Lancaster as a basis for an annulment, but the actual grounds are not known.
The duchess soon remarried. Like her brother the king, she married a social inferior—in her case, Thomas St. Leger, a knight who had probably been her lover for some time. As Anne Crawford notes, Edward IV had been showing St. Leger a great deal of favor for many years, including a substantial grant of eight manors in the early 1460’s. He was no gigolo, however; he served Edward IV militarily and administratively for years.
In 1474, the duchess’s child by the Duke of Exeter died, triggering the duchess’s remainder interest in her lands. The following year, Edward IV set off on an expedition to France, which ended in a peace treaty instead of the anticipated military engagement. Anticlimactic for most people, the expedition was fatal to one—the Duke of Exeter. He had been released from the Tower and allowed to join the expedition, presumably so he could prove his loyalty to the king in battle, but on the return journey, he was drowned. Whether his death was accidental or murder is unknown, though rumors of the latter abounded.
The Duchess of Exeter, meanwhile, had a daughter by Thomas St. Leger in late 1475 or in January 1476. The little girl, named Anne like her mother and her deceased half-sister, soon became motherless, for the duchess died in January 1476, possibly in or soon after childbirth. She was buried in the Chapel of St. George at Windsor.
Following his wife’s death, St. Leger remained on good terms with his brother-in-law the king. He served as Edward IV’s controller of the mint and as master of the king’s harthounds. In 1481, he was granted a license to found a perpetual chantry of two chaplains at the Chapel of St. George, in memory of his wife. He never remarried.
Thomas Grey, the Marquess of Dorset, who had married the Duchess of Exeter’s eldest daughter, Anne Holland, had remarried after the young girl’s death and now had a son of his own, who was contracted to young Anne St. Leger. The arrangement under which Anne was be deemed the heir to the Exeter estates was formalized in an Act of Parliament in January 1483. Richard Grey, Dorset’s younger brother, also benefited from the Act, in which part of the Exeter inheritance, worth about 500 marks, was set aside for him. The loser in this transaction was Ralph, Lord Neville, who was the heir of the Holland family, although since the Duke of Exeter had been attainted, the crown had some justification in treating his inheritance as it liked.
This arrangement fell apart when Richard III took the throne in July 1483. Thomas St. Leger attended the new king’s coronation and was given cloth of silver and velvet for the occasion, but he was soon afterward deprived of his positions of master of harthounds and controller of the mint. His daughter, meanwhile, was ordered to be handed over to the Duke of Buckingham. Perhaps, as Michael Hicks has suggested, Buckingham had the girl in mind as a bride for his own eldest son. This never came to pass either, of course, for both St. Leger and Buckingham ended up in rebellion against the new king.
St. Leger has been criticized for his lack of loyalty to Richard III, but Richard, having removed him from his offices, had given him no reason to remain loyal. Moreover, St. Leger had been unshakably faithful to Edward IV and, like many of the other rebels, was undoubtedly distressed at Edward V having disappeared from sight after having been deprived of his crown.
Unlike many of the rebels, who gave up the fight after Buckingham’s execution on November 2, St. Leger continued the fight in Exeter, but was ultimately captured. He was executed on November 13, 1483, at Exeter Castle, despite the offer of large sums of money on his behalf. St. Leger, described by the Crowland chronicler as a “most noble knight,” was buried with his wife Anne at Windsor. They are depicted here:
One last bit of business remained: the disinheritance of Anne St. Leger. In 1484, Richard III’s only Parliament overturned the acts under which Anne had been declared the heir to the Exeter estates. The beneficiary, however, was not the Exeter heir, Ralph Neville, but the crown itself.
Poorer but still well connected, Anne St. Leger ultimately married Sir George Manners, Lord Ros. Their eldest son, Thomas Manners, became the first Earl of Rutland. It is this earl’s countess who is credited with telling the supposedly sexually naive Anne of Cleves, “Madam, there must be more than this, or it will be long or we have a duke of York, which al this realm most desireth.”