By Peter Fleming
Regional Historian, Issue 12 (2004)
Introduction: What follows is a kind of murder mystery, but not a whodunit. The identity of the man who carried out the crime, while indeed a mystery, is probably unknowable and actually unimportant. There is little room for doubt as to the identity of the man who gave him the order. The real mystery lies with the identity of the victim. In attempting to solve the mystery, we shall enter the kaleidoscope of faction and violence that was high politics during the Wars of the Roses, and make the acquaintance of one of fifteenth-century England’s foremost alchemists.
In March 1461 Edward earl of March, and since his father’s death at the battle of Wakefield the previous December, duke of York, seized the throne from the hapless Lancastrian Henry VI, to become Edward IV, the first Yorkist king. He was helped in his efforts by Richard Neville, earl of Warwick – the ‘Kingmaker’ as he would much later be known – a man whose immense wealth and power was matched by his ambition and ruthlessness. By the beginning of 1469 it might have seemed as if Edward had finally buried all hope of a Lancastrian revival: the last rebel outposts had been taken, Henry VI was a prisoner, and his indomitable queen, Margaret of Anjou, was in exile. The country was held by a network of trusted lieutenants. In the Bristol region – Gloucestershire, Somerset, and south-east Wales – paramount among these were Warwick himself and William Herbert, who had been raised to the earldom of Pembroke in September of the previous year. Pembroke was the son of Sir William ap Thomas, and between them they had built Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, probably the most magnificent of fifteenth-century castles in England and Wales. Warwick had strong local interests through the Despenser inheritance of his wife Anne Beauchamp and his cousin, George Neville, son of Lord Abergavenny. These included extensive estates in Gloucestershire as well as the Earlscourt of the Honour of Gloucester, held at St James’s Priory in Bristol, and an interest in the manor and hundred of the Barton, which covered a large area to the immediate east and north of the town. As we shall see, members of Pembroke’s family were active in Bristol in the 1460s.
However, a very astute and well-placed observer of events in early 1469 might have detected signs that Edward’s rule was not so secure. Edward’s recent marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the widow of a Lancastrian knight, brought her numerous kin into the royal family, and many of these had to be found suitably elevated husbands and wives. This severely restricted the scope of Warwick’s plans for his own family. He may have resented the influence that the Woodvilles were now enjoying, feeling that he no longer had the king’s ear. He may have been offended that such relatively lowly people were now his social and political equals. However, it was probably differences over foreign policy that most enraged him: he had been pursuing a French alliance, but the Woodville marriage was swiftly followed by an alliance with the duke of Burgundy, the French king’s bitter rival. Warwick felt that he had been made to look foolish on the international stage. He began plotting against the king he believed he had helped to make, and even managed to suborn Edward’s own brother, George, duke of Clarence. The pair covertly encouraged rebellion in the north. In July 1469 Warwick’s opposition to Edward was made brutally apparent at the battle of Edgecote, near Banbury, where his forces comprehensively defeated a largely Welsh army led by Pembroke and Humphrey Stafford, earl of Devon. This was a victory not only over Edward, but also Pembroke, who was captured. He and Warwick were personal enemies, and had long quarrelled over the contested lordship of South Wales. Immediately after the battle Pembroke and his brother Sir Richard Herbert were executed.