Richard III and the Church in the North

Professor Barrie Dobson



As we all know, Richard was born far away from Ripon at Fotheringhay in Northamptonshire, a reminder, if a reminder were needed, that he wasnít predestined to be the only northernerís king to sit on the English throne. Indeed, let me declare my personal interpretation, prejudice perhaps, of Richard III at the start. We all have our Richard III; and so no doubt we should. But mine, I think, is neither the calculating far-sighted assassin of Shakespeare nor the would-be moral redeemer of his country presented by so many of his admirers, but rather one of those Kiplingesque heroes who travels furthest because he travels alone, and doesnít quite know where he is going. Curiously enough, not that I believe in astrological interpretations of Richard, the same unpredictably is detectable, is it not in many of the large number of other highly individualistic figures who were, like Richard, born on October 2, such as, Samuel Adams, the late Archbishop Robert Runcie of Canterbury, General Paul von Hindenberg, Graham Greene, Mahatma Ghandi and even Groucho Marx. In every one of these cases, their careers, like Richardís, took unexpected and unforeseen changes of direction. Small wonder that Richard mystified his subjects while he was King between the summer of 1483 and the summer of 1485, and he has puzzled and confused us, like so many antiquaries and historians, ever since.

Nor perhaps that one would wish it otherwise. In many ways, we would all agree that perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Richardís remarkable posthumous reputation is not, after all, whether he really was Thomas Moreís dissimulating tyrant, the nearest the English monarch has ever got to producing a blood-stained Tiberius, or alternatively Sir Clement Markhamís less likely interpretation of him as Ďa Ďcrowned angelí. Much more bewildering is the fact that Richard of Gloucesterís career and personality should have mattered so much to so many for over 500 years. These are deep waters. Why is Richard III the only English monarch to have developed a positive emotional cult in the early Twenty-first Century, and eulogized on both sides of the Atlantic. It seems to me no easy matter to explain why he has become the most commercially marketable of all the English Kings. But undoubtedly one of the reasons for his fascination is that we know not so much, but so little about him, and the mainsprings of his political action, for certain. Thatís why the remarks about Richard IIIís relations with the Church in Northern England is bound to be partly a matter of hypothesis and guess work.

One other preliminary observation too, and before I begin., it is sometimes said that the one all-essential, fundamental feature of all enduring, influential and potent myths, is a feeling of regret for a vanished pre-lapsarian Edenic world, a lamentation for a vanished and Camelot or golden age. Now it seems to me that such regret for an irrecoverable golden age does indeed help to explain Richardís astonishing appeal so long after his death and to help why we are all here in Ripon to mourn a putative lost leader on this October Saturday. Itís true that for the last fifty years and more most professional historians have dedicated themselves to proving the unimportance of Richardís short reign, and to arguing that the year 1485 is one of the least rather than most significant dates in the evolution of the English state. Perhaps so; but for most of us here today maybe a small residual doubt remains. As it happens, the three places I have lived in for the longest periods of my life have been Barnard Castle in Teesdale, Cambridge and York, the futures of all of which would have definitely been quite different if it had been the corpse of Henry Tudor, rather than that of Richard which had been found on the battlefield of Bosworth on the evening of August 22, 1485. In particular, this paper will argue that in the field of church affairs the great Durham antiquary, James Raine, was probably right when he wrote 150 years ago: Ďit was a dark day for the north when the sun of York set upon the field of Bosworthí.

So letís begin to look at Richardís attitude and policy towards the great ramshackle engine, as the late K. B. McFarlane once called it, of the English church as it existed, that is, in the northern metropolitan province of York. Itís a large and neglected subject, to which I will inevitably do poor justice, especially as of the three dioceses of the northern province, I will have much more to say about the church of York than that of Durham or Carlisle. I donít regret that too much, for York Minster, as well as the wealthiest parish churches such as Middleham and major minster churches like Ripon of the vast diocese of York. had much more to offer Richard than anything at the disposal of the monks of St. Cuthbert at Durham or the Augustinian canons of Carlisle. About the latter, the impoverished bishopric of Carlisle, Richard achieved complete success in controlling the diocese there by securing these for his own unlikely friend and nominee, a monk of Durham called Richard Bell, dear tome as the subject of the first article I ever wrote. Richardís relations with the Bishops of Durham and Archbishops of York were much more tense and at times hostile, not least because those two prelates resented his intervention in spiritual and religious matters.

Until quite recently, with Charles Rossís biography of the King in 1981, most students of Richard III tended to assume that he had no particular attitude to the church at all. But that omission is in fact highly surprising given that two of the most familiar hostile witnesses to Richardís reign provide some startling remarks to the contrary. Our first witness is that eccentric Warwickshire chantry priest, John Rouse, whose account of Richard IIIís reign, written within a few years of the kingís death, is most famous for being the source to quite systematically identify Richard with none other than the Antichrist himself. In the middle of Rousís extraordinarily ferocious attack on a prince so fated to be evil that he took two years to emerge from his motherís womb and only then did so with his teeth already formed and his hair hanging down to his shoulders, we suddenly, out of nowhere encounter this passage" ĎAnd yet this King Richard is to be praised (laudandus) for his building, as at Westminster, Nottingham, Warwick, York and Middleham and many other places as can be seen to the eye by those who look around them. What is more. Rouse continues, ĎHe founded a noble chantry (cantariam) in the cathedral church of York, and another chantry at Middlehamí. Less plausibly perhaps, Rouse concludes by saying that Ďthe money offered Richard by the people of London, Gloucester and Worcester he declined with thanks, affirming that he would rather have their love than their moneyí.

Unlikely behavior, we might well think, for an Antichrist; but at least Rouse has been the first commentator on Richard to expose a fundamental paradox in the perceived public persona presented by the last Yorkist King. That paradox had to be faced again some twenty or so years later by the single most measured, not that it is saying much of the chronicle accounts of his reign, Polydore Vergil. Vergil tried to solve the problem of Richardís apparent religious devotion by arguing that it was in York, when making his first ceremonial progress to the city in September 1483, that: ĎKing Richard by a strange kind of outrageous cruelty attained the very apogee of glory and promotion but then determined by all dutifulness to abolish the stains of infamy with which his honor was stained. ĎSo he began to take on a certain new form of life, and to give the show and countenance of a good man, whereby he could be accounted more righteous..Öand so might find merit in Godís handí.

Although in that intriguing judgment Polydore Vergil is surely guilty of ex post facto rationalization, there seems no doubt that he touches on a couple of highly important nerves. Richard clearly did engage himself in some extremely spectacular and unusual acts of religious patronage and secondly, he projected himself consciously or not as a man of undoubtedly intense religiosity. About that personal Ricardian religiosity I will say little this morning, above all because it is the subject of Jonathan Hughesís five-year old book, The Religious Life of Richard III: Piety ad Prayer in the North of England. Jonathan Hughesís most learned study does indeed do much to convince me that Richard did see himself as an agent of Christian providence, but rather less to prove to me that there was a distinctive northern religious culture in late Fifteenth-Century England.

But it is of course to Richardís deeds in the north rather than to his largely unknowable thoughts that we must turn. The first and most important point to make is that in matters ecclesiastical, quite as much as in matters political, Richard III was in Rossís phrase Ďthe heir of Nevilleí. It was on his marriage to Anne Neville in July 1472 that Richard was committed to more or less permanent residence in the north, to living in Middleham Castle and to playing the role of Yorkshireís outstanding magnate. Coincidentally, it was in that very month, July 1472, the Dean and Chapter of York solemnly celebrated the final completion of Englandís largest work of Gothic architecture, York Minster. At the height of their influence and wealth, the Archbishop of York and York Minster offered the largest conglomeration of opulent ecclesiastical positions in the north of England, and possibly in the kingdom as a hole. The church of York provided a concentration of wealth and employment for Richardís favorite clerks which proved critical to his status as the northís Ďdominus specialissimusí as well as his even greater future. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that it was the pool of university-educated ecclesiastical talent available within the church of York. It provided Richard with the administrative and ideological springboard for his political ascendancy in the north and his eventual ascent to the English throne. Let me take the most notorious example. As far as we know, the Englishman who cried most on hearing the news of the result of the Battle of Bosworth on August 22, 1485, Ďsore crazedí it was said, Ďby reason of his trouble and caryngí was the elderly Bishop Robert Stillington of Bath and Wells, Richardís most committed episcopal ally and once himself a canon of York Minster.

But, as we are in Ripon, let me take a couple of examples from Ripon, a town like Wensleydale as a whole absolutely under Neville family domination in the 1450s and 1460s. As Michael Hicks showed several years ago, one of Richardís greatest political and economic coups when he was resident at Middleham during the1470s was to secure appointment as the Lay Steward of the Archbishop of Yorkís Lordship of Ripon, assessed at an annual income of over £314 in the 1480s and so the second most valuable lordship after Sherburn-in-Elmet possessed by the late medieval archbishop. In his capacity as Steward, Richard had the ability to influence land transfers and the profits of markets throughout the town of Ripon and the area around. But it is important to stress that ecclesiastical benefices and jobs, were more important to Richard than stewardships. And my second example is the way in which William Poteman, Richardís most influential supporter among the canons of York Minster was collated to a canonry at Ripon Minster and to the prebend of Nunwick on February 14, 1478. In the following year, and undoubtedly under Richardís influence, Poteman became Master of St Mary Magdaleneís Hospital here too.

Canon William Poteman, hardly ever remembered since his death in 1493, is in fact the hero of this talk, if it should have a hero at all. A Yorkshireman who was born at Fryston, north of Pontefract, made his reputation like the great majority of late medieval Englandís bureaucrats as an Oxford-educated Doctor of Canon Law. He was sufficiently talented to become one of the earliest Wardens (1459-66) of the then quite new college of All Souls. In Oxford, he caught the attention of George Neville, who brought him up to York in 1466. As the Archbishopís vicar General and official of his consistory court at York, Dr Poteman has to be considered the mot powerful ecclesiastic physically present in York throughout the twenty-five years of 1468-1493 and was a residentiary canon of the Minster. Potemanís power was all the greater because throughout this period, only three or at most four of the thirty-six canons of the Minster were in fact in residence. Although Potemanís two most important colleagues as residentiaries, Dean Robert Booth and Master Thomas Portington, certainly knew Richard of Gloucester. It was Dr Poteman who acted as much the most important contact man, Ďfixerí if you like, in Richardís dealings with the church of York.

As early as 1474, Poteman received the first of many payments for traveling expenses in riding the forty miles to Middleham from York to consult Richard of Gloucester in negociis ecclesie, Ďon the business of the churchí. Thereafter Poteman always seems to have done what he could to implement Richardís various requests for support in legal causes, promoting Richardís clerks, and placing the Minster at his service. According to the Continuator of the Crowland Chronicle, the very first thing Richard is known to have done on hearing of the death of his brother, Edward IV, was to assemble the leading Yorkshire magnates and gentlemen to York Minster to swear an oath of allegiance to the young Prince Edward V. This long partnership between Richard and Dr. Poteman reached its climax when the latter, with all the other cathedral clergy, welcomed the newly crowned Richard III at the west door of the Minster at the end the most elaborate and sumptuous pageants the citizens of York could provide.

Not surprisingly, this mutually beneficial relationship between King and Minster Chapter, between Richard and Canon Poteman continued during the two short years of the new kingí reign. Throughout that reign, Poteman and his colleagues received much from the king, not only jewels and relics but more importantly financial aid to assist the alarming decline in the revenues of the Minster vicars choral. In return Poteman succeeded in extending Richardís extensive clerical network in the north, most remarkably of all by finding an important place among the residentiary canons themselves for one of the most intimate and dramatically promoted of all Richardís favorite clerks, the mysterious Master William Beverley. The most astonishing expression of Richardís affection for the church of York, is the proposed Ďcollege of an hundredth priestsí mentioned by John Rous. Nearly everything about that extraordinarily ambitious chantry college is mysterious; but fortunately just enough references to Richardís college survive in seven contemporary documents to make it clear that it was a serious enterprise. It had begun to rise above the ground probably within rather than outside the existing Minster under the supervision of Canon William Poteman just before the Battle of Bosworth. Richardís death inevitably brought complete halt work to a college which would presumably have been larger than those three great extravaganzas of late medieval English gothic architecture.

For many years I have had no serious doubt that the explanation for Richardís spectacular foundation at York was that he planned to be buried there. How appropriate after all, that the only northerner king ever to have sat on the English throne should have been interred in the capital of the north.