While updating my website this morning, I added the myth that Elizabeth Woodville concealed Edward IV’s death from Richard, Duke of Gloucester to the Myths About Elizabeth Woodville page. It’s a revised version of a blog post I did some time ago, but as some new readers have come to my blog since then (and since the myth keeps popping up), I thought I’d add it here as well.
Among the modern myths that have grown up around Elizabeth Woodville, one of the most pervasive is that when Edward IV died, the queen either attempted to conceal the news from his brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester, or deliberately delayed in notifying him. This myth has made it into nonfiction as well as fiction, giving it a certain respectability and staying power. Elizabeth Jenkins in The Princes in the Tower twice states that no one told Richard of the king’s death until William, Lord Hastings broke the news, and Paul Murray Kendall (naturally) writes that no official word ever came from Westminster to Richard. Bertram Fields in his book Royal Blood likewise accuses the queen and her kin of intentional delay, and a quick surf on the Internet produces several Ricardian sites that make similar allegations.
But is there truth to the story that Elizabeth Woodville and her family deliberately failed to let Richard know of his brother’s death? No contemporary chronicler makes this claim. The Crowland Chronicler, who most historians agree was a person highly placed at court, reports the controversy that arose after the king’s death over the size of the escort that Edward V was to take to London, notes that Richard wrote cordial, reassuring letters to the queen after he learned of Edward’s death, and states that Richard traveled to York to publicly mourn his brother. In all of this, he doesn’t indicate who told Richard of his brother’s death or when he learned of it. At no time, however, does he suggest that anyone had been derelict in giving Gloucester the news or that it had come from an unexpected quarter. Dominic Mancini reports that there were conflicting opinions among the new king’s councilors as to what role Gloucester was to play in the minority government, and he writes that Hastings reported these deliberations to Richard via letters and messengers and urged him to come to London quickly to assert his right to control the government. As with Crowland, however, nothing in Mancini’s account gives the impression that there had been any delay in notifying Richard of his brother’s death or any impropriety in the way he was notified.
Based on these sources, the logical conclusion is that whether or not Elizabeth Woodville personally sent Richard the news (and it’s not at all clear that she, as opposed to someone from the late king’s household like Hastings, the king’s chamberlain, would have been expected to do so), Richard learned of his brother’s death via conventional means and within a reasonable time. Indeed, in their chronology of events in The Coronation of Richard III: The Extant Documents, Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond estimate, based on Mancinci, Crowland, and other contemporary sources, that Richard in Yorkshire probably received the news of Edward IV’s death at about the same time—April 14—that Edward V and his household, which of course included Elizabeth’s brother Anthony Woodville, received the news in Wales.
Moreover, even if the Woodvilles wanted to conceal the king’s death from Richard (and again, there’s no contemporary evidence that this was their desire), they would have been hard-pressed to manage such a feat. Though Richard spent most of his time in the North, away from Edward IV’s court, he was an essential part of Edward IV’s government and wielded great power. He would have had agents at court to transact his business with the king and to keep him informed of current events there; he would have also had attorneys in London to mind his legal affairs. As Edward IV’s death on April 9, 1483, was made publicly known within hours—the late king’s body was displayed at Westminster for the mayor and the leading citizens of London to view, and the news arrived at Calais via a servant of Hastings on April 10—any of Richard’s connections at court and in London, not to mention his relations and his acquaintances, could have communicated with Richard about his brother’s death, thereby thwarting any attempt to keep the news from him. The most likely scenario, however, is Richard didn’t need to rely on such sources; rather, it’s most logical to conclude that William Hastings, as part of his duties as chamberlain of the late king’s household, sent an official messenger to Richard to inform him of his brother’s death just as he sent a messenger to Calais. Later, when dissent arose on the council, Hastings sent private communications—those mentioned by Mancini—to Richard, but there is no reason to think that these confidential communications were the first news Richard had of his brother’s death.