Kings and Stony Stratford – 6 King Richard III

The period known as the Wars of the Roses furnishes the most interesting stories about the exploits of kings and their association with Stony Stratford. Richard III was probably one of history’s most notorious kings and his seizure of his nephews at Stony Stratford on 1483 is a key moment in English history.

The origin of this civil war is found in the usurpation of the throne in 1399 by Henry of Lancaster. He deposed his nephew Richard II and reigned as Henry IV. He was succeeded by his son Henry V but he died in 1422 leaving an infant son Henry VI who left the throne exposed to competing dynastic claims. The hapless Henry VI was never strong enough to unify the country and the leading claimants to the throne came from Richard of York, descended through his mother from Edward III’s second son and through his father by Edward III’s fourth son, Edmund of York. The Yorkists maintained that their descent through the second son had precedence over the Lancastrian descent from the third son. The Yorkist cause eventually prevailed and Richard’s eldest son Edward was crowned in 1461 after a decisive battle against the Lancastrians.

Edward IV did not have a particulrly stable reign either. He was deposed in October 1470 and regained the throne six months later. He probably had Henry VI quietly murdered and also had his brother George executed in 1478 for plotting against him. It has to be said that his youngest brother Richard was always loyal to his eldest brother.

Upon Edward IV’s death in 1483 at the relatively early age of 41 Richard acted swiftly and ruthlessly. Upon the news of Edward IV’s death on April 9th 1483, the twelve year old Edward was at ludlow and Richard was at Middleham in Yorkshire. Messages were exchanged between Richard and Earl Rivers, the young king’s Woodville uncle and at Richard’s suggestion they agreed to meet at Northampton. Rivers and Richard met in Northampton on April 26th although by this time young Edward and his brother had moved on to Stony Stratford. The following day Richard arrested Earl Rivers and other members of his retinue and despatched them to Potefract Castle. He then went to Stony Stratford and picked up the two boys and accompanied them to London where he placed them in the tower “for their own safety”. Richard then methodically proceeded against the Woodville camp by launching an undoubtedly false accusation that they were plotting against the crown. The Woodville clan by the way had enough enemies for Richard to find sympathetic ears. Richard was appointed Protector of the crown and over the next two months continued with his campaign to discredit the Woodvilles and advance his own claims to the crown. He was crowned on July 6th 1483 at Westminster Abbey.

Richard organized a judicial deposition of Edward V. Parliament voted for his deposition on the grounds that he was the illegitimate son of Edward IV – the secret marriage of Edward and Elizabeth was declared non-existent. Edward V and his younger brother Richard were held in the tower and were murdered either on June 22nd or June 26th 1483.

Richard III lost his life and his throne at the battle of Bosworth in 1485. He was replaced by Henry Tudor who claim to the throne was more tenuous than any of the other claimants. He was in fact descended from one of John of Gaunt’s bastard sons by Katherine Swynford. However as Henry VII he secured the state and his own dynasty which prevailed throughout the 16th century.

Richard III was portrayed as a monster by black Tudor propaganda. He was said to be deformed – a hunchback, although there is no contemporary evidence that even hints at this. However it suited Henry Tudor, by no means secure in his own claim to the throne to blacken the name and reputation of the man he had replaced. Further fuel was added to this fanciful fire by Shakespeare’s chilling portrayal of Richard III.

Partly because the Tudor propaganda was so extreme various modern historians have tried to rehabilitate Richard III. Although he almost certainly eliminated his two young nephews his behaviour may have been no worse than many other Plantagenet and Tudor kings. This does not excuse it, of course.

Richard’s reign was short because discontent centred around Henry Tudor and because Richard precipitously engaged with the small Tudor force at Bosworth. Had Richard waited for reinforcements from the north our history may well have been different.

It is claimed that the two princes stayed at the Rose and Crown. there is no written evidence for this – only hearsay. The name of the inn itself may be a clue which we should take into account.

Kings and Stony Stratford – 5 King Edward IV

Up to the 15th century references to kings and Stony Stratford have been only the briefest mentions in official documents. In the reign of the Yorkist king, Edward IV, we can discover a full blown story which was a sensation in its day.

On April 30th 1464 King Edward IV and his party stopped overnight at Stony Stratford. We don’t know which Inn the king himself stayed at but it is likely that the king’s entourage was a large one and they probably used up all the inn space at Stony Stratford between them. So far nothing remarkable, but the following day Edward quietly slipped away and rode out to Grafton where the Woodvilles or Wydvilles had a house. His objective was the beautiful widow Elizabeth de Grey (formerly Woodville) and apparently that day they were secretly married. The King returned to Stony Stratford and said he had been hunting, that he was tired and went to sleep. The following day he returned to Grafton for three days and each night he and Elizabeth came together for a secret assignation.

This is about the only fact we have although as one would expect there is a great deal of legend. It has been said that he first encountered her at the “Queens Oak” in Whittlewood forest while hunting. It is also said that she had resolved to approach the king over the forfeited estates of her previous husband. There may be some gain of truth here but it leaves room for questions. Had the king encountered Elizabeth Woodville while hunting it would have happened in a very public environment with the likelihood of other observers and reporters on the meeting. There are however none, and the marriage itself was kept secret for 6 months. It is of course possible, given Edwards established womanizing reputation, that his courtiers paid no especial attention to his apparent fling with the de Grey widow.

On balance I am inclined to take this view. Kings led very public lives and were rarely out of sight of anybody. Any dalliance with Elizabeth de Grey would have been noticed. However if it were thought no more of than an affair nobody would have paid much mind to what was going on. The announcement on October 4th that he was married must have been a sensational revelation.

These details come from a contemporary chronicler, Robert Fabyan.

It was a marriage that astonished his contemporaries and historians have generally been at a loss to explain Edward’s choice other than sheer impetuousness. It is not even clear when Edward first met Elizabeth Woodville and became enamoured of her. He did spend three days in Stony Stratford in 1461 when he pardoned Lord Rivers and this has been suggested as a time for a first meeting, but if so one wonders why it took three years for Edward’s passion  to incubate.

The point is that Edward could have, should have made a marriage which was more dynastically important. In fact, even after the secret marriage negotiations continued for a French marriage. Edward must have been conscious that his marriage would cause dismay, to put it at its mildest, amongst the English nobility, because he kept his secret until October when the French marriage plans had reached a point of decision.

And what of Elizabeth Woodville? She was a beautiful woman and at the time of here marriage to Edward a 27 year-old widow with two young sons. Her fist husband was Sir john Grey of Groby who had been killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1461 fighting on the Lancastrian side. As a widow she was relatively impoverished which might in part explain why men were not lining up to marry her. The usual tale that is told of the whirlwind pursuit by Edward is that she virtuously resisted his advances and the only way of breaking don her resistance was to propose marriage. This may be so, although we simply have no way of knowing.

Elizabeth Woodville brought with her a set of difficult problems for the monarch, partly through her own rather icy personality and partly through the preferment of her very large family. Elizabet, although beautiful, lacked warmth and generosity of spirit. She bore grudges for a very long time and worked tirelessly and often unscrupulously to enrich her own family. And that family was very large. She had 11 brothers and sisters and waged a constant campaign to see that they married into money or were given honours that brought in great wealth. A certain amount of self help in this area was to be expected and tolerated, but the Woodvilles were greedy and resentment gradually increased to the point where the Yorkist regime was fatally undermned. It was as much the prospect of Elizabeth Woodville and her family running the monarchy that shifted significant support to Edward’s brother Richard of York. It can be argued that were it not for the Woodvilles sudden rise to power, the Yorkist dynasty may well have continued and the Tudor name would not have come into our history.

Kings and Stony Stratford – 4 King Edward I

It is highly probable that medieval kings traveled through Stony Stratford on a number of occasions, given their itinerant lifestyle. Unfortunately, at this distance in time we can only work from actual surviving records. King John issued a charter at Stony Stratford on 22nd February 1215 so we know he was there. His son Henry III may have passed through Stony Stratford several times during his long reign, but there is no record.  Edward I must have travelled up and down this road on many occasions to reach the north of England or North Wales, but the only recorded time was after the death of his wife Eleanor of Castile. They were married in 1254 and by all contemporary accounts the marriage was a happy one. She accompanied him everywhere and managed to give birth to 16 children over a period of 30 years. The last born in 1284 became Edward II.

She died at Lincoln on November 28th 1290 and her grieving husband accompanied the funeral cortege from Lincoln to London. The route went from Lincoln, Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Hardingstone, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham. Westcheap in London  and finally Charing, now of course known as Charing Cross. Each of these places was an overnight stop.

Edward ordered that a cross should be erected at each overnight stop. They were originally wooden, but after a few years each was replaced by a stone cross. The Stony Stratford Cross, which was probably on the High Street at the entrance to the town remained there for a few hundred years until it was destroyed during the civil war. The base of the cross remained for some time after and was then removed. Nobody knows when.

The slight widening of the road here shows that houses were built round the cross.
The location suggests that they stayed at the nearby inn, probably Grik’s Herber, later known as the Barley Mow.

The cortege travelled from Hardingstone the previous night, about 14 miles away. One wonders what sort of accommodation could be found in Hardingstone and why Edward did not stay in Northampton. Perhaps he stopped at Hardingstone and his retinue stayed in Northampton. The Hardingstone Cross is one of three survivors. The Stony Stratford Cross was probably similar.

Kings and Stony Stratford – 3 King John and his travelling court

John was the youngest of the children of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. He was born, more-or-less as an afterthought, in 1167 when his mother was 45. Eleanor showed no interest in him and he spent most of his growing years with his father and was Henry’s favourite son. John adopted some of the worst characteristics of his father, namely his deviousness but seemed to be unable to sustain a coherent policy. It has been suggested that John was manic-depressive, or in modern terms, bi-polar. He would have periods of frenetic energy followed by periods of extreme lassitude.

His reign was full of difficulties, usually of his own making, and the unintended legacy of his reign is the Magna Carta. At the time of his death, possibly of a heart attack, the country was in a state of civil war and John’s early death brought to an end a very troublesome reign.

John was a very mobile king.He had no permanent centre and his court was constantly on the move. The whole adminstrative structure of john’s reign moved around England, Ireland, Wales and France which also meant that the treasury moved with him. The story about John losing his treasure in the Wash while crossing it is true, but it could only happen to a king who had no permanent centre.

It is possible to map John’s movements over the whole of his reign and in the various places he stopped he had to conduct court business; For this reason a charter survives that was issued and witnessed at Stony Stratford. This charter considers the appeal of one Godfrey Blundus of Northampton for some rights that were his due on the death of Roger Harengus and is dated 22nd February 1215. John stayed at Stony Stratford from 19 February 1215 to 5 March 1215.

The details of this charter have little meaning for us, but the fact that John lodged at Stony Stratford during this period tells us that there were a sufficient number of inns in Stony Stratford to accommodate the Royal retnue.

In December of that year, with his army of foreign mercenaries, John set forth on a campaign of terror up to the north of England in an attempt to bring the barons to heel. We know from the rolls that he followed a route through St Albans and Dunstable, but instead of taking the road through Stony Stratford he went  to Newport Pagnell en route to Northampton. John revealed the nastier side of his character during thins campaign and did not restrain his troops from sacking and looting every town they passed through, as well as destroying crops in granaries. There is no record of what was done to Newport Pagnell, but we can assume that Stony Stratford and Wolverton had a lucky escape.

Kings and Stony Stratford – 2 King Richard I

King Richard I made his reputation as a warrior king and sat on the English throne for 10 years. This is not literally correct. He was King of England, as well as being Duke of Aquitaine, Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Brittany. England was of less significance to Richard and during his whole reign he spent less than 6 months in the country. The governance of England was left in the hands of deputies who turned out to be very good adminstrators. While Richard was away looking after his territories in France or on a Crusade or locked in an Austrian castle the kingdom of England was seemingly well governed.

It was during his reign that Stony Stratford came of age. Up till then it had been a growing collection of inns and dwellings on the Wolverton side and the Calverton side to service travellers. However in 1194, under King Richard’s seal, Stony Stratford was given the right to hold a market – a much-prized licece in those days as it allowed  community to grow economically.

The first charter was issued to Gilbert Basset and his wife Egelina on 30 April 1194 and this charter was confirmed with the king’s seal on 20 January 1199 for a Sunday market at their manor of Stratford. (my italics)

This would appear to suggest that part of the Wolverton manor had been sold off at an earlier date. Later references to a third manor between Wolverton and Calverton might associate this land with The Mallets, as it was later called in the 16th century. At any rate this appears to be the beginning of Stony Stratford as an entity. The grant was confirmed by King John on 21 Mar 1200.

These years marked the beginning of a transition from an entirely rural economy to an economy which included commercial centres – subsquently known as towns or market towns. King John in particular encouraged the growth of new market towns, largely because he was able to see the tax-gathering potential in such a move. Liverpool, for example, was his own personal creation on his own land. There were great attractions to these new towns for those who wished to free themselves of the bondage of being tied to the land. From this point Stony Stratford begins to grow as a commercial entity and starts to outstrip both Calverton and Wolverton in population.

Two generations later the Earl of Oxford, who owned the Calverton Manor, muscled in on the market business and obtained a charter for an annual fair on 15 September 1257. Later he acquired 40 acres on the Wolverton side around the church of St Mary Magdalene and received a second charter on 1 June 1290 for an annual fair. it is probable that this land was also The Mallets.

In time the fairs shifted to the Calverton side, obviously in the Market Square and Horse Fair Green, but also at Cow Fair in between – now known as Silver Street.


Kings and Stony Stratford – 1 Edward the Elder

Stony Stratford’s location on one of England’s main thoroughfares meant that it had more that one encounter with kings of England so I’m going to run a little series on Stony Stratford’s royal connections.

A Stony Stratford website claims that Edward the Elder, King Alfred’s son fought a battle against the Danes here. It is possible. The River Ouse marked the border of the Danelaw for many years and Stony Stratford did lie on a road from Buckingham and Bedford – both important forts. However, I have not been able to find the source of this story.

Edward the Elder, as he is known, was born about 871 or 2 the second son of Alfred, King of Wessex. He became king in 899 on the death of his father. Under his rule the power and influence of the Wessex kings grew  and he was able to absorb the kingdom of Mercia in 918. He did win several battles against the Danes and was successful in pushing them further north.

In 917 he began a general offensive against the Danes. He occupied Towcester in April that year and was able to repulse a Danish attack and later beat them off at Bedford.

Stony Stratford did not exist as an entity at this time so there will be no references to it. We do find that Edward came to Passenham in the Autumn of that year and set up his headquarters there. Passenham has been very much off the beaten track for centuries but 1100 years ago it would have been a strategic post, close to the river and to the highway. Towcester was reinforced with a stone wall at this time and the Saxon army moved up the Ouse valley to Huntingdon where they were able to occupy the Danish fortress there. In all of this campaign there is no mention of any fighting in the Stony Stratford area.

The Stony Stratford website  offers the information that Edward the Elder fought a battle against the Danes at Stony Stratford. I have not been able tofind the source of this information. There were certainly battles at Towcester.