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The Last Days of Richard III
By John Ashdown-Hill
The History Press Copyright © 2010 John Ashdown-Hill,
All rights reserved.
'Your Beloved Consort'
The first symptom had probably been a little cough, a dry tickle in the queen's throat, so slight as to be barely noticeable. At first, only those who were very frequently in Anne Neville's presence might have noticed the cough's persistence, for at times it may have seemed to go away, allowing the slender woman respites of peace. Yet each time the cough will have returned, gradually growing more noticeable, while the queen herself grew weaker. Increasingly she doubtless found that she tired quickly and seemed to have little energy.
We have no record of the medicines she took, but presumably the usual simple remedies of the period were tried. Thus the Duke of Norfolk may have suggested that sucking a small piece of sugar candy, or sipping a little honeysuckle water or wine, could be of help in such cases. He had purchased similar medicines for his own first wife, Catherine, in the early stages of her fatal illness. But in the long run sugar candy and honeysuckle water had failed to cure Lady Howard. In Anne's case, too, although such palliatives may have helped a little at first, as time went on her cough must have become more persistent and more troublesome.
Anne had been well enough to participate in the festivities of the court at Christmas, accompanied by the Lady Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the late King Edward by his bigamous pretended marriage to Lady Grey. According to the Crowland chronicler, the feast was celebrated with great (even excessive) splendour. He comments in acidulated tones upon the quantity of singing and dancing, and upon the 'vain changes of dress – similar in colour and design – of Queen Anne and of the Lady Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the late king'. Yet soon after Christmas Anne's condition probably worsened, as other and more distressing symptoms began to manifest themselves. Her voice will have grown hoarse. She must often have found herself short of breath, and no doubt her appetite, which may never have been large, progressively decreased.
With failing health came symptoms of which only the queen herself, her intimate body servants, and her husband will have been aware: probably her monthly cycle had now ceased, even though Anne was not yet thirty years of age. Had this fact been more widely known it would have caused grave disquiet in the court, since at this time Richard III was a king with no direct heir. To the great distress and anguish of both his parents, Edward of Middleham, the only child of the royal couple, had died earlier that same year. For the stability of the nation and the dynasty it was therefore a matter of some urgency that a replacement heir be engendered as soon as possible.
The king and queen had their own separate bedchambers, as was the norm in upper-class households. Nevertheless, Richard and Anne, who had known one another since childhood, and who were cousins as well as marriage partners, had always been close. For the greater part of their married life they had been in the habit of sleeping together. However, as Anne's health worsened the king was advised by doctors to cease sharing her bed. If consumption (tuberculosis) was the cause of Anne's distress, no doubt her continuous dry, hoarse cough made sleep difficult for both of them. Moreover, she had probably begun to suffer from night sweats, so that Richard would wake in the small hours to find their shared bed soaked and cold. The fact that the king and queen no longer slept together came to be whispered in corners. Royal sexual activity has always been a topic of prurient public interest, and throughout the court, behind hands, the reason for this change in sleeping arrangements became the subject of murmured speculation and gossip.
As the days slowly began to lengthen the queen will have become increasingly listless. Day by day she must have grown paler and thinner. The napkin with which she covered her lower face when she coughed may now have begun to be speckled with blood. By Collop Monday it must have been abundantly clear to all who saw her that Anne would not be able to take part in the Ash Wednesday fast, nor would her weakened body be capable of sustaining the abstinence of the Lenten diet which would follow. She would almost certainly need to avail herself of the dispensation which the Church had always accorded to the sick in such circumstances.
Having spent the Christmas season at the royal Palace of Westminster, the court had remained in residence there as the year of grace 1484 drew towards its close. Apart from any other consideration, it may have been thought undesirable to attempt to move the ailing queen. By this time, all at court must have known that she was gravely ill. As usual in such cases, the relatively sudden onset of her malady gave rise to rumour, and some of those whose meat and drink is to gossip about the affairs of others, began to hint that the only explanation they could think of for such a rapid deterioration in health was poison. Typically, their ill-informed gossip demonstrated little more than their lack of solid information. But also, as usual, that fact did nothing to stop the spread of the malicious tittle-tattle.
The end for Queen Anne came just over a week before the year's end. On Wednesday 16 March a grave portent appeared in the heavens. Just after nine o'clock in the morning, as the Benedictine monks in nearby Westminster Abbey were singing the office of Terce, the spring sunlight filtering through the stained-glass windows on the south side of the choir faltered, and the Latin words in their breviaries and antiphoner became hard to see. Outside the abbey church, the brightness of the morning was fading. In the southeastern sky, the shadow of the moon's disc crept slowly across the face of the sun until the light of the latter was almost completely obscured. The resulting near-total darkness lasted for almost five minutes, no doubt engendering a delicious frisson of fear amongst the superstitious. A solar eclipse was thought to be among the most dreadful of omens, so it probably came as a surprise to no one when the great bell of Westminster began to toll, announcing the passing out of this sinful world of the poor sick queen.
In the Palace of Westminster, the royal chaplains intoned the Litany and murmured the prayers for a passing soul over Anne Neville's frail, wasted body. 'Go forth, Christian Soul, out of this world, in the name of God the Father, who made you; in the name of God the Son, who redeemed you, in the name of God the Holy Spirit, who was poured out upon you.' The rapid muttered Latin of their voices went on to invoke the Holy Mother, and all the angels and saints, to receive the dead queen at the gate of Heaven and conduct her soul into paradise. One can only try to imagine what might, at this time, have been going through the mind of the bereaved king, who in less than a year had lost both his only legitimate child, and his wife. There is no reason to doubt Richard's affection for Anne Neville, and 'one of his last acts prior to the queen's decease, and at a time when her dissolution was hourly expected, was reportedly a grant of £300 to that university which in the preceding year had decreed an annual mass for "the happy state" of the king and "his dearest consort, Anne"'.
Human sexuality encompasses a varied spectrum. The basic black and white terminology popularly employed to pigeonhole it does scant justice to its complex shadings. Nevertheless, the pigeonholes do have their uses. Thus we may observe that in modern terms there had been straight Plantagenets and gay Plantagenets; promiscuous Plantagenets and faithful Plantagenets. Richard's eldest brother, Edward IV, was certainly one of the promiscuous Plantagenets, so much at the mercy of his own libido that he committed grave errors as a result, with very serious consequences for his dynasty. But Edward IV's father, Richard, Duke of York, and the king's younger brothers, George, Duke of Clarence, and Richard III, all seem to have been amongst the continent Plantagenets. Whether or not his had been an arranged marriage (and it almost certainly was), the Duke of York seems to have genuinely come to love Cecily Neville, and to have been faithful to her. Their children were numerous; the couple spent a great deal of time together, and we know of no mistresses. Similarly George, Duke of Clarence, seems to have been faithful to Isabel Neville, even though his reasons for marrying her in the first place may have included more than a hint of politics. No mistress or bastard of the Duke of Clarence is named in any surviving source.
Richard III seems to have been cast in very much the same mould as his father and his brother, Clarence. Although he is known to have had two illegitimate children, John and Catherine, these would seem to have been engendered during Richard's teens, at an age when young people are prone to experiment with sex. After Richard married Anne Neville there is no evidence of infidelity on his part, and no more bastards are known to have been born. But unlike his parents' marriage, that of Richard III was not conspicuously fruitful. He and Anne produced only a single child, Edward of Middleham. Whether there had also been other pregnancies which did not run to term, we cannot now know, but even if there were none, there is no reason to suppose that Richard was not an attentive husband. Indeed, the fact that, during Anne's last illness, his avoidance of her bed gave rise to comment and gossip speaks volumes, for it can only mean that for Richard to sleep apart from his wife was considered highly unusual, and that all the court knew this. Presumably then, for most of their married life, Richard and Anne must regularly have shared a bed. Their lack of a large family was therefore probably due merely to biological chance.
From the little evidence we have, it is legitimate to deduce that the relationship between Richard III and Queen Anne Neville was a close one throughout, and that their shared grief at the loss of their only child may have deepened that relationship. There is therefore every reason to presume that Anne's death at a comparatively young age (even though it was neither sudden nor unexpected) will have caused the king much pain, particularly since this loss followed so closely upon the heels of his earlier grief at the death of his son. In March 1485 Richard III, bereft of his immediate family, probably felt very much alone. He was a religious man. What had happened to him since he accepted the crown may have raised difficult questions in his mind, resurrecting the ghost of those problems which he had perforce confronted eighteenth months earlier. Had his answer been the right one? At the heart of all his concerns lay the perennial problem of the succession to the English throne.
* * *
The queen had died at the Palace of Westminster on Wednesday 16 March. No detailed records survive of the arrangements for her exequies, but based on what is known of the funeral arrangements for Edward IV (who also died at Westminster) we may assume that later that same day her dead body was taken into the hands of the embalmers, who then proceeded to prepare Queen Anne for her burial. On 17 March Anne's corpse, royally robed, was doubtless borne into the palace chapel of St Stephen (whose site is now occupied by the chamber of the House of Commons) to lie in state there for a week. On the afternoon of Thursday 24 March it would then have been carried in solemn procession to nearby Westminster Abbey where Placebo and Dirige (the offices of Vespers and Matins for the Dead) would have been celebrated into the night while the body, now enclosed in its coffin, lay before the high altar on a great hearse surrounded by candles. It was on the morning of Friday 25 March – Feast of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and according to the English calendar, the first day of the new year of 1485 – that solemn Requiem Mass for Queen Anne Neville was celebrated in the abbey church, ending with the queen's interment in a grave which had been newly opened for her beneath the pavement on the right-hand side of the high altar. Although little evidence now survives, there is no doubt that Queen Anne Neville's interment was accompanied by the full panoply of a medieval royal funeral. Indeed, while it gives no details, the late fifteenth-century Crowland Chronicle assures us that, as one would expect, she 'was buried ... with honours no less than befitted the burial of a queen'. However, in accordance with established royal protocol the king himself was doubtless absent – at least officially – from all these ceremonies.
* * *
The liturgical season did not lend itself to any prolonged period of royal seclusion for the private indulgence of grief. Lent was rapidly drawing to its close, and inevitably Richard must have appeared in public on Sunday 27 March, to take part in the Palm Sunday procession at Westminster. Palm Sunday marks the start of Holy Week, during which further important religious observances will have required the king's presence. Subsequent English sovereigns were wont to touch for the 'King's Evil' (scrofula) during Holy Week – as well as at other times of the year. This miraculous royal healing ceremony was exclusive to the kings of England and France. The period around Easter was considered particularly appropriate for 'touching', since in France – and probably also in England prior to the Reformation – it was thought important for the monarch to be in a 'state of grace' (having confessed, received absolution and taken Holy Communion) before beginning the rite.
This healing ritual was enacted in England from at least the time of Henry II, founder of the Plantagenet dynasty. Indeed, from the fourteenth century, if not before, it seems to have been regarded as offering an acid test of the validity of the monarch's claim to the throne. By the reign of Henry VII a special order of service had been established for 'touching', which, however, 'incorporates much older material'. Specific records of numbers and dates of 'touchings' during the Yorkist period are lacking, but this in itself is not particularly surprising. The rite was by this time so routine as to excite little comment. Moreover, the system of accounting had been changed, so that disbursements under the general heading of 'royal alms' were no longer itemised in detail. We can nevertheless be quite certain that Edward IV performed the ritual, since Sir John Fortescue (then a Lancastrian supporter) denied that Edward's 'touching' could be efficacious, on the grounds that Henry VI was the true anointed king. Richard III must also have 'touched'. Failure to do so would inevitably have cast doubt on the legitimacy of his royal claim.
The duty involved was not a particularly pleasant one. After having confessed and taken communion, the king was required to rinse his hands, then press them upon the suppurating sores of each of the afflicted, while one of his chaplains intoned the Latin words: Super egros manus imponent et bene habebunt ('They will lay their hands upon the sick and they will recover': Mark, xvi, 18). The ceremony could be held in either a secular or a religious building. In England it took place with the king seated, the sick being brought before him. After their sores had received the royal touch, each was given a coin. By 1485 this was almost certainly one of the recently introduced gold 'angels', depicting the Archangel Michael overcoming evil, and bearing the legend: Per crucem tuam salva nos Christe Redemptor ('Christ, Redeemer, save us by your cross'). On Wednesday 30 March, five days after his queen's burial, we know that Richard III was at the Priory of the Knights of St John of Jerusalem (Knights Hospitaller) in Clerkenwell – where he made an important public statement, which we shall examine in detail in the next chapter. Since the Hospitallers were specifically dedicated to the care and healing of the sick, it is possible that this Holy Week visit by the king was in order to conduct the royal 'touching' ceremony at the knights' priory on this occasion.
The following day was Maundy Thursday, and the king must have attended the mass of the Last Supper, most probably at St Paul's Cathedral. After the gospel reading from the thirteenth chapter of St John had been intoned, in accordance with ancient custom Richard III donned an apron and went down on his knees. He then proceeded to wash the feet of thirty-two poor men while the choir chanted a series of antiphons, from the opening words of the first of which this whole day derives its English name. Having washed the feet of the poor in imitation of Christ, Richard then gave to each of the thirty-two men the apron he had worn to wash that man's feet, together with the towel with which he had dried them. Additional gifts followed, including for each man a gown, a hood, a pair of shoes, bread, fish, wine, and a purse containing thirty-two silver pennies. Both the total number of poor men and the number of pennies distributed to each of them reflected the years of the king's age.
Friday 1 April found the king on his knees again, for the penitential rite of 'creeping to the cross' which was the main focus of the Good Friday liturgy. For preference, the cross adored by medieval English kings on this occasion was the reliquary Cross Gneth captured by Edward I from the Welsh and containing a fragment of the True Cross. From the reign of Edward III this was normally kept at St George's Chapel, Windsor. Since Richard III was in London on Good Friday 1485, either this royal reliquary cross was brought to him from Windsor, or a different cross must have been used on this occasion. At the appropriate point of the Good Friday liturgy 'the king would ... prostrate himself, and then – without getting up – slowly approach the symbol of the crucifixion' in a semi-prostrate condition.
Excerpted from The Last Days of Richard III by John Ashdown-Hill. Copyright © 2010 John Ashdown-Hill,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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