Biographies & Memoirs

Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath & Wells

a man of rather mediocre talents

An Introduction to the Bishop

In respect to the events surrounding the assumption of the throne by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, I, like others, have argued here that the fulcrum upon which the balance of judgment turns is the legitimacy of his claim to the crown of England. The document which argues for the legitimacy of this claim is the Titulus Regius.1 It named Edward IV’s pre-contract with Eleanor Butler as perhaps the primary reason2 for the illegitimacy and thus the disinheritance of Edward’s two sons, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York. By the time this pre-contract came to be at the centre of events in the summer of 1483, the two youngest of the three people involved in the precontract ceremony were already dead. It was of course the death of Edward IV himself on the 9 April of that year which had precipitated events.3 The lady in question, Eleanor Butler, had died some fifteen years earlier, on 30 June 1468.4 Thus, the only known witness to such events still alive at this critical juncture was the officiating priest, by then Bishop of Bath & Wells, Robert Stillington (see Figure 28).5 Following the precedent of others, a brief assessment of his life, career6 and subsequent actions in relation to the pre-contract is presented in this chapter to endeavour to understand his role in the making of Richard of Gloucester’s critical decision.7

The Life of Robert Stillington

Robert Stillington has been treated rather dismissively by some modern historians. Kendall, for example, characterised him up as ‘a man of rather mediocre talents not remarkable for strength of character.’8 Given his most probable, relatively humble beginnings, his survival and periodic prosperity through the reigns of several sometimes antagonistic monarchs and his crucial role in the key events of the lives of some of those kings, Kendall’s assessment might be viewed as somewhat harsh. Tentatively identified as a Yorkshireman,9 we do not have the exact date of Robert Stillington’s birth, which lacuna might support the contention that his origins were less than marked.10 However, we do know that he graduated from the University of Oxford as a Doctor of Civil and Canon Law in 1442,11 where he is supposed, perhaps erroneously, to have been a Fellow of All Souls’ College.12 It is most probable, although not certain, that he was over the age of twenty at that time,13 and knowing that Stillington died in 1491 this would suggest that he lived to be at least seventy years old.14 As we shall see, at the time of the pre-contract, around 1461, when Edward IV was only nineteen and Eleanor Butler a little older at approximately twenty-five, Robert Stillington, at just over forty, was not a young man, particularly by the standards of the day.

When involved in the disgrace and execution of George, Duke of Clarence in 1478, he was, assumedly, over fifty-six years of age and then, in 1483, as Richard III ascended the throne, Stillington at over sixty years of age must have been considered an elder statesman; all this at a time when average life expectancy was below the age of forty. Even adjusting for the fact that life expectancy figures were skewed by high infant mortality,15 Robert Stillington was, at the critical points of his life, essentially an old man immersed in younger men’s actions. Nor at the crucial time, in the summer of 1483, can he have been in the best of health, since we have evidence of earlier bouts of illness suggested by, for example, his inability to attend the opening of parliament in 1472.16Despite these respective advancements and adversities in his life, Stillington survived under six kings and served in an official capacity under at least four of these, receiving some degree of preferment from each. On the darker side, he was imprisoned by Edward IV and suffered disgrace twice under Henry VII. The latter imprisonment suffered under the first of the Tudors should not be unexpected given the reported events surrounding Richard III’s ascension to the throne. However, it is not Stillington’s life per se which is of dominant interest here, but rather it is the insights that such a biographical survey permits into his critical actions in respect of the life of Richard III. With this overarching goal in mind, let us proceed to an abbreviated summary of the bishop’s accomplishments.

Many of the specific details of his preferments and his appointments and grants can be found in modern sources18 and I have drawn on these reports concerning his official appointments. Until 1461, Stillington primarily held ecclesiastical positions, the first of which appears to have been the post of Principal at Deep Hall in 1442. He had collected a number of such appointments, as, for example, when he became a canon of Wells Cathedral on 2 August 1445, which was followed on by his promotion to Cathedral Chancellor on 6 June 1447. Such appointments suggest an ambitious and able individual, especially in light of Stillington’s suspected humble beginnings. Although from a landed family, he did not have the advantage of royal or noble birth and hence his early success must be attributed more to character than to connections.19 This record of early achievement, such as his appointment as Archdeacon of Taunton on 20 April 1450, runs counter to Kendall’s assessment of Stillington as a man of simply mediocre talents.20However, Kendall is talking largely of his achievements as an older individual and, on the much larger national stage which he later graced. Kendall does admit, however, that Henry VI was reputed to have said of Stillington that he possessed ‘great cunning, virtues, and priestly demeaning.’21

Stillington’s first obvious step toward wider pre-eminence was with his 1 November 1461 appointment by Edward IV as Keeper of the Privy Seal. From this start, he began to see diplomatic duty as an ambassador dealing with both Scottish and Continental concerns. We can presume that he accomplished such tasks satisfactorily, since the Calendar of Patent Rolls informs us that on the 20 January 1466 he was granted the custody of the temporalities of the Bishopric of Bath & Wells, later ascended to the vacant See itself, succeeding the late John Phreas (Free) as bishop.22 His consecration by George Neville, Archbishop of York and the brother of ‘Warwick the Kingmaker,’ took place on 10 March in Westminster Abbey. This religious elevation was augmented some short time later on the 20 June 1467,23 when Edward appointed him Chancellor of England, to succeed the same George Neville, who, as Warwick’s brother, was dismissed following his involvement in the turbulence between the king and the Kingmaker.24 Not unexpectedly, as a Yorkist adherent, Stillington’s star declined with the readeption of Henry VI,25 but rose again with Edward IV’s return to the throne in 1471, when Stillington resumed his position as Chancellor.26

Stillington must have been a central figure in government at this time, but his influence also seems to have been a personal one, especially in generating a reconciliation between Edward IV and his brother George, Duke of Clarence, while also being appointed to the council of the young Prince of Wales, later to be Edward V.27 Given the prince’s age in 1473, the year of Stillington’s appointment, it appears that this was something of an administrative rather than a pedagogical position. However, as we shall see, his role as intermediary and as friend to Clarence had much more immediate and serious implications. Following a bout of ill health which was recorded as having begun in September 1472, Stillington eventually resigned the office of Chancellor on 8 June 147328 and much speculation has surrounded the potential reason for this change. Some see this removal as evidence of reversal of royal favour, which perhaps might have come about because of his friendship with Clarence. Stillington’s diocese overlapped with the heart of Clarence’s main lands and there seems little doubt that they had contact during the period of 1470–1471, when Edward and his other brother Richard were in exile.29 This generates the possibility that the friendship between Clarence and Stillington was more than a passing one, and the knowledge of the pre-contract (which event is purported to have occurred around 1461) would have potentially proved a crucial piece of information in the dispute between the brothers. However, it is also possible that ill-health prevented the bishop from accomplishing his duties at that time.30 Given Stillington’s knowledge about Edward’s earlier association with Eleanor Butler, it would seem to be unwise for the king to antagonize the bishop and thus perhaps ill-health and incapacity was more likely the stimulus for this change. If it was disfavour, it does not appear to have been serious enough to cause a permanent rift. Stillington was subsequently appointed in late 1475 to seek the extradition of Henry Tudor by an appeal to the Duke of Brittany. Although unsuccessful, Stillington appears to have suffered little for the failure, either in terms of the disapprobation of Edward IV or, even later, after the turn of fortune at Bosworth in August 1485. Indeed, he seems to have been little persecuted by Henry VII in general, an individual not universally acclaimed for his tolerance. We shall explore Henry’s uncharacteristic magnanimity toward Stillington later in this chapter. Despite this relatively benign treatment, Stillington later proved to be a supporter of the Simnel rebellion and, after its collapse following the Battle of Stoke, he sought refuge at the University of Oxford. Eventually, he was given up to the Tudor regime and was apparently imprisoned at or near Windsor, where he may have later died. Our primary point of departure here is, of course, the pre-contract itself, and it is to this that I now turn.

The Cleric and the Contract

Although there is a possibility that Edward IV and Eleanor Butler had already met some time previously, the occasion which appears most likely to have first brought them together concerns the rights to the manors of Griff and Great Dorsett in Warwickshire. Lord Sudeley had conveyed the manors to Eleanor and her husband Sir Thomas, but without royal licence. Upon the death of her husband Eleanor was constrained to petition the king for their return, since he had confiscated them for the Crown. It is uncertain where and when this meeting occurred, with Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Norfolk and London all being viable candidates, as known locations of Edward IV in the summer and early autumn of 1461. We do not, at present, know this precise location, but we do know that the three people involved must have met together and apparently in a place that permitted a certain degree of privacy, since the report is that only these three people involved were present at the pre-contract. Of all the possibilities, the royal lodge at Woodstock in Oxfordshire would seem to be perhaps the most likely location, partly because of its proximity to Eleanor’s lands.31 As far as we are able to ascertain, evidence points to Stillington being the only witness to the fateful pre-contract between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler.32 There are a number of informative works concerning the pre-contract33 and what is of central interest here is Stillington’s role in the event. Stillington himself was actually related to Eleanor Butler through his aunt Lady Lisle’s (Joan Cheddar) relations to the Talbots.34 Thus, given the reality of the precontract, Robert was marrying off one of his relatives to the king.35 That this could form part of his later motivations during the turbulent summer of 1483 has not previously been explored in any great detail.

The overall sequence of events is rehearsed by Buck, 36 who reported that: his [Edward’s] affection was as general to others being a frank gamester, and one that would cast at all fairly set. Yet above all for a time, he loved the Lady [Eleanor Talbot] a very fair and noble lady, [daughter of John Talbot,] Earl of Shrewsbury; and [her mother was] the Lady Catherine Stafford, [daughter of Hum]phrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham. [And this Lady E]leanor was the widow of Thomas, [Lord Butler,] Baron of Sudeley. And the king’s [affection] was so strong, and he was so fervent and vehemen[t, and also at] that time so honest toward her as th[at he mad]e choice of her for his wife. And he was firmly and [sole]mnly contracted and also married to [her by] a reverend prelate, namely Dr. Thomas [Stillington, Bishop of B]ath, a grave and learned man and a counsellor of state, and much favour[ed] by the king, and often employed in great affairs (as I have partly intimated before). And this matter is witnessed by our Eng[lish] stories, and also by the honourable and veritable [histo]rian Philip de Commynes, and in these word[s;] … That is summarily in English thus: The Bishop of Bath, a privy Counsellor of [King] Edward, said that the king had plighted [his] faith to marry a lady of England, w[hom] the bishop named/viz, the Lady Ele[anor] Talbot/, and that this contract was made [in the] hands of the bishop. And he said that afte[rward] he married them, and no person being presen[t but] they twain and he. And he said also that [the king] charged him very strictly that he should not reveal this secret marriage to any man [living.] And this contract and marriage are related in the Act [of Parliament] aforesaid, and where it is di[sertly called a former marriage. And the king had a child by this lady.

As to the length of the subsequent relationship between Edward and Eleanor, we are not sure about the duration, and the rumour concerning a child from the union is repeated in a number of places.37 What is not in dispute is that, according to our current knowledge, the pre-contract did occur and Stillington was the priest involved.

Stillington and the Fall of Clarence

One of the questions that historians have raised over the years is the degree to which Stillington used his knowledge of this formal liaison, and in particular the way this secret information was involved in the eventual demise of George, Duke of Clarence.38 The final stage of this disputation between the two brothers has been described by Campbell,39 who observed:

Now began the fatal dissensions in the royal family which led to the destruction of the House of York, and the extinction of the name of Plantagenet. There is reason to think that the Chancellor did all that was possible to heal the dispute between the King and his brother, the Duke of Clarence. When the trial for treason came on in the House of Lords, the Duke of Buckingham presided as Lord Steward, and the King appearing personally as accuser, the field was left to the two brothers; ‘no one charging Clarence but the King, and no one answering the King but Clarence.

To what degree Stillington was involved in the accusations of treason against Clarence is not easy to discover. The primary issue with Clarence was his continuing aspirations to assume Edward’s throne,40 and the dangerous nature of his growing threat is typified by his high-handed treatment of one Ankarette Twynho, a servant woman he suspected of having poisoned the Duchess Isabel. Clarence had her brought all the way from Somerset to Warwick and, in a court cowed by Clarence’s power, she was found guilty and hanged on 15 April 1477. In this Clarence was seen to be assuming the rights of the king. It was part of a continuing sibling rivalry that had been simmering for almost a decade. For example, in relation to some earlier disputes between Edward, Clarence and Warwick the Kingmaker, the historian Habington,41 speculating on knowledge of the pre-contract, had reported that:

For had there been a just exception against this marriage, neither George Duke of Clarence, nor the Earl of Warwick, in their frequent calumnies against the King, being in open rebellion, had left it unmentioned.

In this context, Habington was very explicit that he was talking about the bar to the validity of Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to Edward on account of the pre-contract. As he noted, had the pre-contract been known at that time, there is little doubt that it would have been used in accusation, again suggesting that in the early 1470s it was still a secret pact.42

Following his high-handed treatment and pretensions to the throne, Clarence was himself arrested some two months later and imprisoned through the rest of the year of 1477, until he was required to answer the king’s charges which followed the January Parliament, assumedly summoned primarily to indict the duke. In the squabble between the elder and the younger brother, the elder won and George, Duke of Clarence was dispatched on 18 February 1478.43 From my perspective, Clarence had pressed the envelope one too many times and his execution was due predominantly to his never-ending ambition and was little contingent on knowing or relating anything about the pre-contract. Indeed, we can ask of what value would it have been to Clarence? Eleanor Butler had now been dead for almost a decade44 and any accusation could be easily remedied by a simple ceremony. The threat of revelation essentially represented little or no threat to Edward at that time. Rather, it was Clarence’s accusation of Edward’s own illegitimacy that must have rankled. Edward having been born in France and George in Ireland, the issue of legitimacy must have involved the king, not his issue from Elizabeth Woodville.

It has often been suggested that Stillington revealed the pre-contract to Clarence. However, this assumption is based upon spatial and temporal contiguity and not on any hard evidence. For example, the proximity of some of Clarence’s lands and Stillington’s bishopric have suggested some degree of personal familiarity and this is supported by Stillington’s efforts at reconciliation between the king and his brother. Similarly, the fact that March 1478 found Stillington in the Tower,45 and had to pay ‘a round sum for his ransom’,46 seems to suggest some degree of involvement.47 The accusation that he was in prison for ‘uttering words prejudicial to the King and his State’ has most often been interpreted as his revelation to Clarence. However, whether his arrest dates from before or after Clarence’s execution (18 February 1478)48 or was simply contemporary with it is not known for certain. It may well have been possible that Stillington was implicated without ever having discussed the pre-contract. After all, as noted, it was not a major weapon in Clarence’s armoury. This is potentially confirmed by the fact that by 20 June Stillington had secured a pardon, although he did not return to favour and held few appointments immediately after this time.49 It is speculated that Stillington’s pardon was contingent upon his silence or even active denial of the pre-contract, and some authors have suggested that the antipathy of the Woodvilles toward him was because of this critical knowledge that he held. However, we have no certain evidence of this and I believe this inference, although apparently a logical one, is, in actuality, flawed.

However, if for a moment we do assume that Stillington was in trouble for having revealed the pre-contract to George for his subsequent use in his arguments with his brother the king, why was his younger brother Richard apparently unaware of these accusations? For surely, George, in his attempt to bring his younger brother to his side of the argument, would have brought to light all he could of these circumstances in early 1478. This being so, Richard would have needed no reminding in early 1483, when he could have brought this issue to the fore himself as soon as he had entered London, and not continued with the normal processes which were to precede the coronation of his nephew, Edward V. Indeed, had Richard known, it would almost certainly have been recorded as such by the various contemporaries who commented on the events of the summer; particularly, we should expect to see evidence of Richard’s insight in the Croyland Chronicle and perhaps Mancini’s monograph also. The fact that we do not see this would seem to be important evidence that Richard knew nothing of the pre-contract until June 1483, when it became a pivotal issue in the succession.

Until and unless we have further evidence of Stillington’s collusion in Clarence’s treachery, we must consider the proposition unproven. Although the revelation of the pre-contract would seem to account for the general pattern of events in the spring of 1478, the threat of public revelation would seem to be essentially an empty one. It might well be that Stillington was ‘swept up’ in a general effort to quell the Duke of Clarence and his subsequent silence would be eminently understandable. After all, having dispatched his own brother, who could feel in any way safe broaching the king’s anger?50

Stillington as the Source: the de Commines Evidence

In respect of the present hypothesis concerning Catesby and the revelation of the pre-contract, we have to examine a number of important propositions with respect to the more traditional notion that it was Stillington who revealed this startling information to the Duke of Gloucester. These respective issues can be stated separately and sequentially. First, was Stillington the source of Richard’s information? Alternatively, did Stillington only act to confirm what had already been revealed to the Protector by someone else? In respect of these first two propositions, what contemporary sources do we have which speak to the issue? Further, if Stillington was the source, when was he purported to have revealed this, and what provenance do we have for such a dating? And finally, what was Stillington’s reward for this crucial information which justified Richard, Duke of Gloucester’s altering of the course of history and assuming the throne of England? Answers to these questions are vital in relation to the central hypothesis I have put forward here, since they go to the very heart of the matter.

Let us begin this sequence of evaluations by quoting an important note made by Hammond.51 In this he states:

It has been said that Commines is the sole contemporary source connecting Bishop Stillington with the pre-contract of Edward and Eleanor Butler. This is not in fact so, since from the contemporary report of a discussion of Titulus Regius by the Justices in the Exchequer Chamber at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, and by the Lords in Parliament, it is clear that they thought that Stillington was the author, ‘the Bishop of Bath made the bill.’

It is very important here to follow Hammond’s observations closely, and so let us begin with the initial observation.

It is true that, among others, Levine has written that ‘the only contemporary to say that Stillington told Richard about the pre-contract and claimed to have participated in its making is Commines …’52 Thus Hammond is most informative here, and we must first evaluate this traditional case of de Commines as the sole source before we pass on to the other evidence Hammond cites. It is worth stating in detail what de Commines53 specifically had to say. In his first references to this issue, he reported:

In short, the conclusion was this; by the assistance of the Bishop of Bath (who had been formerly King Edward’s Chancellor, but falling afterward into disgrace, had been removed from his place, thrown into prison, and paid a round sum for his ransom), he executed his designs, as you shall hear by and by.

This Bishop (Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells) discovered to the Duke of Gloucester (Richard III) that his brother King Edward, had been formerly in love with a beautiful young lady and had promised her marriage, upon condition that he might lie with her; the lady consented, and, as the bishop affirmed, he married them when nobody was present but they two and himself. His fortune depending upon the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained a secret.

In a later passage in his sequence of books, de Commines reiterated the story, but with some embellishments:

for King Richard, after his brother’s death, had sworn allegiance to his nephew, as his King and sovereign, and yet committed that inhuman action not long after; and, in full Parliament, caused two of his brother’s daughters to be degraded and declared illegitimate, upon a pretence which he justified by means of the Bishop of Bath, who, having been formerly in great favor with King Edward, had incurred his displeasure, was dismissed, imprisoned, and fined a good sum for his releasement. This bishop affirmed, that King Edward being in love with a certain lady whom he named, and otherwise unable to have his desires of her, had promised her marriage; and caused the bishop to marry them, upon which he enjoyed her person, though his promise was only made to delude her; but such games are dangerous, as the effects frequently demonstrate. I have known many a courtier who would not have lost such a fair lady for want of promise.

This malicious prelate smothered his revenge in his heart near twenty years together, but it recoiled upon himself, for he had a son, of whom he was extremely fond and to whom King Richard designed to give a plentiful estate, and to have married him to one of the young ladies whom he had declared illegitimate (who is now Queen of England, and has two fine children). This young gentleman, being on broad ship by commission from King Richard, was taken upon the coast of Normandy, and upon a dispute between those that took him, he was brought before the Parliament at Paris, put into Petit Chastellet, and suffered to lie there till he was starved to death.”

What we are to make of de Commines’ latter observations on Stillington’s purported son and a marriage to Elizabeth of York I leave, at this time, for future deliberations. Whether and how this would have acted as a reward for Stillington himself is difficult to decipher. However, there is more here concerning Stillington as the source, and especially if de Commines has been considered the sole source of this information for some prolonged interval of time. In particular, we need here to look at de Commines’ specific use of language. A careful reading of the two quotations seems to indicate quite clearly that Stillington was the original source of information concerning the pre-contract. In fact, we read that, ‘This Bishop discovered to the Duke of Gloucester …’: the use of the term ‘discovered’54 here seems specifically to imply that it was Stillington’s voluntary act that revealed the information to Richard. However, when we look a little further into the same text, more is revealed about this phraseology. Shortly after this quotation, de Commines used the term in the following quote: ‘His fortune depending upon the court, he did not discover it, and persuaded the lady likewise to conceal it, which she did, and the matter remained a secret.’ Here, the use is of the same word, but now we can read into this a different interpretation. In this sentence, the word ‘discover’ can mean advertise or broadcast the fact and in actuality it aligns much more with the modern use of the word uncover.

As we read further into de Commines’ two passages, we also find that the Bishop ‘assisted’ Richard, in that he ‘affirmed’ the reality of the pre-contract. In the circumstances described, Richard ‘caused two of his brother’s daughters to be degraded and declared illegitimate, upon a pretence which he justified by means of the Bishop of Bath.’ Here we have yet another description in which the bishop ‘justified’ Richard’s action. I do not wish to belabour the point beyond what a reasonable interpretation will bear. However, the passages which describe Stillington as the primary source of the pre-contract, as opposed to someone who confirmed that the pre-contract had occurred, and whose authority was then employed by Richard to achieve a more general acceptance of the fact of the bastardisation, is not completely unequivocal. It can be interpreted in a number of potentially differing ways. Therefore, from the text alone, the idea that de Commines proves the source of a pristine accusation is not quite as clear as the traditional story might have us think.

However, there are other objections to de Commines as a source in general, beyond his own words. It has been noted that de Commines was ‘unreliable,’ inaccurate and slanderous toward ‘English internal affairs.’55 In respect of his own reporting, Lander has suggested that ‘[Armstrong] points out that [de] Commines himself stressed his ignorance of English affairs.’56 Thus we have a source here of doubtful accuracy and this doubt is actually expressed by the original author himself. Indeed, it has further been suggested that de Commines may have even inferred Stillington’s role here from what he was subsequently told about the Parliament of Richard which convened in early 1484, and some evidence he adduced from what was reported there. Furthermore, we must always remember that, of the three present at the pre-contract ceremony, Stillington was the only one alive at the time in question. Thus, it may be possible that de Commines inferred this role as the source of the revelation to Stillington as opposed to actually knowing of his actions directly. If this is so, it renders de Commines’ identification as Stillington as the source of the information potentially doubtful. In contrast, I contend here that Stillington only acted to confirm what Richard actually put to him. In providing this confirmation, Stillington subsequently became the public face of the pre-contract revelation. What I am questioning is whether he was the original source for this knowledge. It is evident that Wood also expresses doubts about Commines and indeed Croyland also as contemporary to the events of June. He noted, ‘It is clear that Commines and Croyland both base their accounts not on the events of June but on the act of succession passed the following January which contains what is alleged to be a copy of the June petition.’57 It is worth remembering that the Speaker of that latter Parliament, and a skilled and able lawyer himself, was one William Catesby. To garner further understanding of the accusation against Stillington we now need to turn to the other evidence that Hammond identified and subsequently to the reactions of Henry VII upon his assumption of the throne in the early afternoon of 25 August 1485.

Stillington as the Source: Later Evidence

Let us now return to Hammond’s observations on other citations which identified Stillington as the source of the pre-contract and explore exactly what these respective sources said. In his brief note, which I have reproduced in full here, Hammond states that:

It has been said that Commines is the sole contemporary source connecting Bishop Stillington with the pre-contract of Edward to Eleanor Butler. This is not in fact so, since from the contemporary report of a discussion of Titulus Regius by the Justices in the Exchequer Chamber at the beginning of the reign of Henry VII, and by the Lords in Parliament, it is clear that they thought that Stillington was the author, ‘the Bishop of Bath made the bill’ (see James Ramsey, Lancaster and York, Vol. 2, 1892, p. 488 and S.B. Chrimes, English Constitutional Ideas in the Fifteenth Century, 1936, p. 266, both citing the year book, Hilary Term, Henry VII, Appendix No. 75). The Lords thought he should be summoned before them, as the author of this notorious bill, but the King refused, saying he had pardoned him. It seems clear that his contemporaries thought the Bishop had told Richard about the pre-contract, or had invented it, since they would surely not have been so concerned if they had merely believed him to have drafted the bill on the orders of the King.58

This seeks to establish that, although de Commines may have been the traditional source for the accusation that Stillington revealed the precontract to Richard, it was by no means the only one and indeed if the citations in Ramsey and Chrimes to the same (almost contemporary) source are correct, this latter source59 may have even been closer to events in time than de Commines’ actual writing. So, let us explore this source in further detail. The observation by Hammond basically encapsulates what Chrimes has to say on the matter. Chrimes’ last sentence is however, a little more informative. He states:

All the justices in the exchequer chamber, by command of the king, discussed the reversal and destruction of the act which bastardized the children of Edward IV and his wife. This act was considered so scandalous that they were unwilling to rehearse it, and advised against its recital in the repealing act in order to avoid the perpetuation of its terms. ‘Nota icy bien le policy’ wrote the reporter. ‘Nota ensement,’ he continued, ‘que il (i.e., the offensive act) ne puissoit ester pris hors del record sans act de la parliament pur l’indeminity et jeopardie d’eux qui avoient les records in lour gard.’ The authority of parliament was needed to discharge them. The lords in the parliament chamber thought well of this counsel, and some of them wished to summon the bishop of Bath (Stillington), who had made the false bill, to answer for it, but the king said he had pardoned him and did not wish to proceed against him.

Ramsay is even terser on this matter and simply states, ‘de Comines’ assertions that the troth of Edward and Eleanor had been received by the Bishop of Bath was doubtless based on the mere fact that the case was got up by Stillington.’ Ramsay cites the same source as that which was used later by Chrimes also. It should be carefully noted that these accusations concern the so-called ‘Bill,’ referring directly to the Titulus Regius, which was the subject of the conversation by the referenced lords. Stillington is accused of authorship here, although Ramsay goes further and accuses Stillington of the complete fabrication of the whole episode. It remains crucial to reiterate that this original source, used by both later authors, did not accuse Stillington of revealing the pre-contract to Richard. Rather, it accused him of authoring the bill in the Parliament of 1484, which took place some eight months after the events of June 1483 at the Tower. Thus neither of the close-to-contemporary sources that we have unequivocally points to Stillington as Richard’s informant. It is true that both sources heavily implicate him in these events, but the question of whether he was the actual source remains, I suggest, unresolved by these documents. The indication that Henry VII ‘did not wish to proceed against him’ is, in my view, vitally important to the interpretation that we may impose on the actions of Robert Stillington at this time.

The conclusion here is that Stillington certainly had something to do with the bill, that being the Titulus Regius of Richard III of the Parliament of early 1484. It may well have been this document which was also the basis of de Commines’ assertions. However, this latter reference, as we have seen, certainly does not unequivocally accuse Stillington of revealing the pre-contract to Richard in the summer of 1483, but only of complicity in the bill passed in Parliament in early 1484. Thus from these initial sources of information, it is at best a tentative assertion that Stillington acted in the manner traditionally ascribed to him by historical commentators such as Markham.

The revelation of the pre-contract and its implication was clearly no secret some few decades later. The cited example of this is to be found in the letter of Eustace Chapuys, an ambassador to the court of Henry VIII. He wrote to his master, the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, on 16 December 1528. In this missive, he was concerned with Henry VIII’s treatment of his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, later Elizabeth I. In the course of expressing this concern he was to hark back to past times. Specifically, he recorded that:

… they say that you [Charles V] have a better title than the present King, who only claims by his mother, who was declared by sentence of the bishop of Bath [Stillington] a bastard, because Edward had espoused another wife before the mother of Elizabeth of York.60

The ‘they’ referred to in the quote of Chapuys’ is his attribution of the disgruntled populace of England, unhappy with a number of the policies of the then current administration. By implication, he was suggesting that circulation of the story of the pre-contract was one of public knowledge and public rumour. However, it is probably the case that Chapuys’ knowledge was derived from the earlier observations of de Commines. After all, these two were countrymen and it is possible, if not probable, that Chapuys had Comines’ text to hand. Of course, even if this were true, it does not necessarily mean that there were not public mutterings and murmurings. It is perhaps one of the sources of the great Tudor cruelty that they were so fragilely established on the throne and were as a result spiteful, vengeful and oppressive of all those that they considered possible rivals, even including the old Countess of Salisbury.

However, there is one further wrinkle to this whole issue of Stillington as the source and it is derived from the observations of the Croyland Chronicle. Again, it is critical here to repeat the original words since they, like the other citations, are so important to follow accurately. Croyland said:

and on the 26th day of the same month of June, Richard the protector, claimed for himself the government of the kingdom with the name and title of king; and on the same day in the great hall of Westminster he thrust himself into the marble chair. The pretext of this intrusion and for taking possession in this way was as follows. It was put forward, by means of a supplication contained in a certain parchment roll, that King Edward’s sons were bastards, by submitting that he had been precontracted to a certain Lady Eleanor Boteler before he married Queen Elizabeth and, further, that the blood of his other brother, George, duke of Clarence, had been attainted so that, at the time, no certain and uncorrupt blood of the lineage of Richard, duke of York, was to be found except in the person of the said Richard, duke of Gloucester. At the end of this roll, therefore, on behalf of the lords and commonalty of the kingdom, he was besought to assume his lawful rights. It was put about then that this roll originated in the North whence so many people came to London although there was no-one who did not know the identity of the author (who was in London all the time) of such sedition and infamy.

Again, by tradition, this unnamed author has been assumed to be Stillington. It is my contention that the individual ‘who was in London all the time’ was Catesby, and not Stillington. As we have seen, the traditional sources which name Stillington refer to him as having made the bill. Like Wood, I see these references emanating from his role in the Act of Parliament. The ‘parchment roll’ of 26 June is a creation I believe it possible to attribute to Catesby’s hand.

When was the Pre-contract Revealed?

Given this timetable of events, a very pertinent question arises here, and I shall use Mowat’s words, who put it so succinctly:

Another pertinent question stems from the fact that those authors who accept that it was Stillington’s disclosure of the pre-contract which sparked off events leading to Richard’s assumption of the crown, assume that he revealed his secret early in June 1483: why did he delay so long after Edward IV’s death? Is it possible that the Bishop himself was doubtful whether a contract and/or marriage entered into secretly, and witnessed only by himself, was a proper legal bar to the Woodville marriage?61

Given the traditional story, let us take for the moment the premise that Stillington was the source of the pre-contract revelation. Although I will again conclude by disputing this premise, for the sake of the argument here let us say temporarily that this is so. The question then naturally arises, as Mowat indicates, when did the actual revelation take place? In this, one relatively modern historian, Sir Clements Markham, offers what appears to be a candidate date which he identifies as the Council meeting of 8 June 1483. Again, it is important to hear Markham in his own words.62 He says:

Up to this time affairs had gone smoothly. On June 5th the Protector had given detailed orders for his nephew’s coronation on the 22nd, and had even caused letters of summons to be issued for the attendance of forty esquires who were to receive the knighthood of the Bath on the occasion. But now there came a change. Dr. Robert Stillington, Bishop of Bath and Wells, apparently on June 8, revealed to the Council the long-concealed fact that Edward IV was contracted to Lady Eleanor Butler, widow of a son of Lord Butler of Sudeley, and daughter of the first Earl of Shrewsbury, before he went through a secret marriage ceremony with the Lady Grey.

I can find no source earlier than Markham which identifies this as the crucial day on which the pre-contract was revealed. But it is worth noting that Markham is only saying ‘apparently’ here, and states no evidentiary basis for his speculation at this point, other, presumably, than his own intuition as to the timing of events. However, Markham’s immediate intuition is directly countered by Kendall’s observation, which, in contrast, is backed up by fact. Kendall reports: ‘Writing on June 9th to an acquaintance in the country, Simon Stallworth, a servant of the Lord Chancellor’s reports that there is nothing new since he has last written, sometime before May 19th.’ Now we must weigh in the balance here Markham’s intuition against the null evidence implied in the Stallworth letter. In my view, the preponderance of the evidence that we have must argue against Markham’s speculation. One further point also militates against the Markham proposition. The 8th was a Sunday and in other citations the Council meeting is purported to have occurred a day later, on Monday 9th.63 This interpretation might actually strengthen Markham’s proposition, but again the Stallworth letter is somewhat against it. There is, however, the small point of the cessation of the writs of the Privy Seal that again may be indicative here. We cannot thus rule out the possibility of the revelation taking place on the 9th out of hand. However, we must say that case for the 8th is doubtful and, similarly, the case for the 9th at present can at best be considered unproven. However, there is more.

A little further into Markham’s text we read what appears to be the definitive passage. It reads: ‘There was a prolonged sitting of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal in the Council Chamber at Westminster, on June 9th Bishop Stillington brought in instruments, authentic doctors, proctors, and notaries of the law with depositions and diverse witnesses.’64 The authority that Markham cites for this observation is Grafton.65 At first blush this would seem to put paid to all that I have espoused in the present text. For if Stillington revealed the pre-contract to the Council meeting on the 9th, there can be no way that it was actually Catesby performing this self-same function on the 13th. However, when we delve a little deeper here we find an instance of one of the most frustrating aspects of Ricardian research. For it turns out that the original passage in Grafton’s Chronicle is some form of fictionalised account of a conversation between the Duke of Buckingham and Bishop Morton wherein, parenthetically, the duke is highly eulogistic of the bishop and his abilities. Upon closer reading, we find that the ‘he’ referred to in the passage cited by Markham is actually Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and not Stillington at all. Also, Grafton provides no dating of this meeting. Thus Markham transposes the individual involved and derives the dating from his own unsupported interpretation. This form of unbound speculation, if not outright misidentification, makes subsequent interpretation more than difficult,66 especially if one accepts Markham’s statements at face value. I find in light of these facts that I am justified in rejecting what Markham has suggested. I fail to find any creditable evidence here that Stillington presented anything to the Council on that date, or indeed at any other time. I have thus proposed here that the revelation actually took place on the morning of the 13th, some four or five days later, and that the informer involved was not Stillington at all but Catesby. I have further suggested that Catesby benefitted enormously from his act. However, supposing the traditional account to be correct and that Richard owed his throne to Stillington, let us see how the bishop was rewarded for this signal and indeed unique service to his new king.

The Tower and Beyond

If Stillington was actually the original source of Richard’s information concerning the pre-contract and its crucial implications, he received precious little reward for effectively elevating the Duke of Gloucester to the throne. For example, even Kendall notes that ‘Resentment against Edward for the loss of high office, a desire for revenge upon the Woodvilles may have urged him (Stillington) to make his declaration. No discernible reward did he receive from Richard …’67 Stillington did take part in the coronation of Richard III, where he was noted as performing the ceremony of hallowing the king and queen.68 Again, interpretation of this participation very much depends upon how one sees Stillington. If he did confirm the pre-contract then he would have understood that Richard was the rightful king. If he did not, or in actuality the pre-contract was only confabulation, then his actions at the coronation must have been of the highest order of hypocrisy.69 As is evident from the tenor of the present text, I tend toward the former interpretation.70Thus, I believe he must have seen Richard as his rightful king, but, again, we see very little evidence of any tangible reward for Stillington in the short years of Richard’s reign up to the time of Bosworth.71 However, if Richard did not reward him, on the up side, Henry did not punish him to any significant extent either.

Regime change is an unsettling event and the days following the unexpected victory of Henry VII at Bosworth must have been quite dramatic for those who lived through them. Often the immediate actions of the new regime betray their most critical fears and some of the dictates of the new monarch can be viewed with this perspective in mind. It seems Henry was very anxious to secure at least two individuals who very much concern us here. Although we do not know where Stillington was on 22 August 1485, we do know that a warrant was issued for his arrest the next day in Leicester.72 It must have been pursued with some dispatch by Rawdon and his colleagues who were sent after the Bishop, since we understand that five days later Stillington was detained in prison in York and was ‘sore crased by reason of his trouble.’73 He certainly should have been. Not only had he taken part in efforts to extradite the one-time Earl of Richmond, now Henry VII, he was also the putative source of information on the pre-contract which bastardised Elizabeth of York, whom Henry was sworn to marry in an attempt to unify the country and solidify his own very shaky claim to the crown. We know that Henry took great pains to suppress the Titulus Regius, the central concern of which must have been the notation of the the pre-contract.74 All this would militate strongly against the continued health and well-being of Robert Stillington who, at the very best, seemed to be looking at a long term of imprisonment. After all, as the reputed author of the bill and the source of the revelation of the pre-contract to Richard, Duke of Gloucester, he must have surely been viewed as a very dangerous individual indeed to the new monarch. Yet where do we next meet Stillington? Puzzlingly, he is officiating at the coronation of Henry VII. This indeed is one of the central mysteries of Robert Stillington’s story. Why was he treated so leniently by an individual who would earn a reputation for exactly the opposite sort of behaviour?

In respect of Henry’s actions following Bosworth, we can compare his respective treatment of Catesby and Stillington. Here we find eminent differences. Catesby was executed even before Stillington was detained. If the reason were jealously on behalf of others in Richard’s realm it is difficult to see how Catesby had so offended the new King Henry VII if all he had done was work assiduously for the former king. Many had done so and even fought for Richard that day at Bosworth; these individuals were not beheaded, and some were not even punished. It may be that their noble birth and high station saved them, for Henry would need the nobility as all of his predecessors had. However, if Stillington was truly the source of the revelation of the pre-contract, surely he would have seen a much harsher punishment. The contrasting harshness to Catesby and the relative leniency to Stillington suggest that the culpability of the former (at least in the new regime’s eyes) was much greater. For me, it argues that Catesby was the source and Stillington the confirmation, and their respective levels of punishment reflected this. Of course, Stillington’s clerical status may also have been instrumental in him avoiding execution, but it is hard to see how it could act as a shield against a harsh sentence. From the perspective I have created, Stillington’s plea to Henry would have been that he was acting as a neutral churchman, answering to the then king as his duty dictated. I believe Henry accepted this explanation and excused Stillington any greater punishment on the promise of the same degree of loyalty to his own monarchy.75 Despite this degree of reconciliation, I do not argue that Stillington became either favoured by, or friends with, the new king. I believe that he had earned and suffered at least a degree of Henry’s disapprobation and, of course, Stillington was Yorkist to the last.

Some authors argue that Stillington’s exclusion from Henry VII’s first Parliament signifies the disgrace that he was in, yet we find that on 22 November 1485, just two months after Bosworth, Stillington was granted a full pardon.76 The only material penalty that he suffered was the deprivation of the deanery of St Martin. In the act repealing the Titulus Regius, Stillington was indeed accused of ‘horrible and haneous offences ymagined and doune by him against the King.’ Despite this rhetoric, very little in the way of real punishment was visited upon the good bishop. One would think that given this history of close shaves with the power of the throne, Stillington would have suspended his political activities and, at the age of at least sixty-five, retired to his religious calling. Yet this was not the case. He was directly involved with the Lambert Simnel rebellion. It was Stillington who himself had at least confirmed the existence and effect of the precontract, so presumably in 1487, in supporting Simnel, he understood that his previous actions had invalidated the claim of the pretender, whether he was purported to be Edward V or his younger brother, Richard, Duke of York. Was it because as a Yorkshireman he was loyal to the Yorkist party from first to last and sought to support what he wished or knew to be the last viable remaining male heir of the House of York? Even today, Yorkshiremen in general are known for their stubbornness and indeed their loyalty. Was this the last act of a faithful servant who must have known that he had little time left? Until we discover further evidence, this will remain just one of the many mysteries of the long-lived bishop.

After the defeat at the Battle of Stoke on 16 June 1487, four years to the day after the young Richard, Duke of York had been escorted from Westminster Abbey to the Tower, Stillington took refuge within the University of Oxford. At first the university authorities refused to give up the bishop, but eventually, under pressure from the king, he was delivered up, and imprisoned at Windsor in October 1487. Some three and a half years later, in May 1491, Stillington died, still a prisoner.77 His body was taken for burial at Wells Cathedral in a chapel which he himself had had caused to be built. By all accounts it was a splendid structure,78 but sadly it no longer stands today, having been pulled down some time early in the reign of Edward VI.

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