The Summer of 1483: Who Was Doing What, Where, With Whom, and Why

   Posted by: Annette Carson   in

The summer of 1483 was a hotbed of activity for those people who had a political interest in the disposal of the throne of England.

Richard III had been offered the crown in June and had enjoyed a splendid coronation on 6 July. He had effectively disposed of opposition, and had set off to display himself to his people on a royal progress which proceeded westward from Westminster and then northward to culminate in September with the investiture of his son as Prince of Wales at York. We are fortunate in that his whereabouts at every stage have been traced by Rhoda Edwards in The Itinerary of Richard III.1

So we know where Richard was at any given time. More interesting is where his opponents were, and what they were up to. For although they had been defeated, they were not eliminated; and in his absence they were busily finding ways to overthrow his rule.

Those whose activities will be traced in this article fall into four main strands, all of which came to be woven together by the month of September.

First there was the Woodville family, whose power-base had been removed with the deposition of King Edward V. Edward, the 12-year-old son of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, had been brought up among Woodvilles and was expected to be their passport to power on the death of his father Edward IV in April 1483, whereupon they attempted unsuccessfully to bypass Richard’s anticipated protectorship. Elizabeth, together with several family members including her daughters, fled into sanctuary at Westminster Abbey in May. By mid-June the deposed Edward V, together with his brother Richard of York, Elizabeth’s younger son by Edward IV (known to history as ‘the princes in the Tower’) were lodged in the royal apartments of the Tower of London where they soon became a focus for dissidents who wished to see Edward restored to the throne.

One of Elizabeth’s brothers was to play an important role in subsequent events, although Tudor ‘histories’ ensured that no credit would attach to his name. This was Sir Edward Woodville, who as early as April had set himself up with a force of ships at sea, ostensibly to counteract a threat from France. When Richard took charge, most of the fleet was brought safely back to England. But Edward Woodville escaped with two ships and large quantities of treasure, including a haul of £10,250 in gold coin audaciously taken from a carrack lying in Southampton Water.2 Woodville and his fortune fetched up eventually on the shores of Brittany.

The second strand we will follow is the career of Harry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, who was Richard’s chief lieutenant in 1483 and a principal architect of the constitutional settlement whereby the representatives of England’s Parliament set aside Edward V and petitioned Richard to assume the throne. Buckingham’s status in life had been transformed by his new association with Richard III, so it is hard to understand why, in view of his new prominence on the royal stage, together with all its material rewards and financial gains, within weeks of Richard’s coronation he would rebel against his generous benefactor.

Third we come to Henry Tudor, Richard’s contemporary who had been raised a supporter of the Lancastrian dynasty, and had thus been on the losing side in England’s civil strife commonly known as the Wars of the Roses. Henry and his uncle Jasper Tudor had fled into exile and by 1483 were enjoying the hospitality of Francis II, Duke of Brittany. As the Yorkist King Edward IV proceeded to consolidate his reign, Henry had been little more than a minor irritant. However, evidently he harboured ambitions that prevented him from reconciling to the rule of York, for although terms had been discussed for his return to England to access certain inheritances if he swore allegiance to Edward, so far Henry had refused to budge.3

Our fourth strand deals with the partnership between Henry’s mother, Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond, and the man who emerged as her politically astute counsellor, John Morton, Bishop of Ely. As our curtain goes up, Morton is under arrest for participating in a plot (attributed to the Woodville faction) to assassinate Richard, and has been sent to be held in custody at Buckingham’s seat of Brecon in south-east Wales. Buckingham himself has left London heading for his estates in the west, parting from Richard as the king’s progress leaves Gloucester (on 2 August according to The Itinerary).4 Allowing time for Buckingham to visit others of his estates on the way, he probably reached Brecon about the middle of August.5

To return to events in London, certain followers of the Woodvilles made a precipitate and ill-fated attempt to remove the ‘princes’ from the Tower which seems to have occurred in July. Its date can only be estimated, but the actual report of the circumstances, by the 16th/17th-century antiquary John Stow, appears to receive independent support in the writings of Thomas Basin, Bishop of Lisieux.6 For reasons explained in my new book, Richard III: The Maligned King, chapter 8, a likely date for the attempt is the third week of July, which ties in with a letter dated 29 July from Richard III to his chancellor ordering action to be taken against the perpetrators, now apprehended, of just such a foiled plot.

Stow, who apparently took his information from the original indictment, says that the conspirators were in correspondence with the Tudor camp in Brittany. This is the first indication we have that the Woodville strand has become enmeshed with the Tudors. The reason becomes clear when we recall that Sir Edward Woodville has been cooling his heels in Brittany for the past two months, with two ships at anchor and coffers overflowing with gold, desperately wishing he could find a way to restore Edward V (and the Woodville family) to power.

The ill-conceived plan in July is followed by another in August, which draws three of our four strands into the mix: on 13 August John Welles, Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother, is arrested for plotting rebellion.7 Margaret’s biographers, Michael K. Jones and Malcolm G. Underwood, believe that Margaret was up to her eyes in this intrigue, and probably was involved in the July plot also; Louise Gill and Rosemary Horrox agree.8

The only possible conclusion is that these were attempts to restore Edward V to sovereignty. At this date there is no indication that any harm has come to the ‘princes’, certainly not on account of Welles’s plot because the latter, after forfeiting his lands, was allowed to go free. Indeed, the very fact that attempts were made to abduct the boys would seem to confirm that they were still safely in the Tower. The last reference to their whereabouts on any particular date comes from the Crowland chronicler, who informs us that at the time of the Prince of Wales’s investiture in the first week of September they were still being guarded closely in the Tower of London.9

We must now return to the Woodville strand and consider their options. By August the only active member of the clan was Sir Edward in Brittany, who had evidently recruited the Tudors to support (as he supposed) the restoration of Edward V. The Tudors, however, were small fry in themselves since they were mere dependants of their Breton hosts. The real prize for the Woodvilles was Henry’s mother in England, Margaret Beaufort, wealthy in her own right, ambitious for her son, and currently married to a hugely influential husband, Thomas, Lord Stanley.

Margaret had evidently seen a vista of golden opportunities opened up by such a liaison, and was keen to exploit it. Otherwise there was no earthly reason why she and her half-brother would risk being involved in rebellious plots which served their family’s interests not one whit.

The most golden of all opportunities for Margaret in the summer of 1483 was the potential hand in marriage, for her exiled son, of Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest daughter, since this would transform him at a stroke into a major player on the world stage. Accordingly she sent intermediaries to Elizabeth in sanctuary to commence negotiations. Historians have been quick to assume, in line with the story peddled by Henry Tudor’s later historian Polydore Vergil, that Elizabeth subscribed to the glorious destiny proposed for her daughter of uniting York with Lancaster; and that, because this action was against the interests of the ‘princes’ if alive, Elizabeth must have believed them dead. Such conclusions, however, are over-credulous. You simply have to work out the chronology.

When the marriage was mooted, it had to be at a time in July/August when the Beaufort side of the bargain was required to demonstrate its bona fides by being willing to commit treason in the Woodville cause. Both mothers were in an equivocal position. Margaret Beaufort had long hoped for a royal bride for her son, but knew there was a price to pay. Elizabeth Woodville had no need to hand over her most senior daughter without gaining something of enormous substance in return. Yet with her son deposed, she was powerless until he could be restored. Therefore we may safely assume that the price for her daughter’s hand was active assistance in his restoration. The person the Beauforts must help to place on the throne was not Henry Tudor, but Edward V.

At this point we must draw in our fourth strand, represented by the Duke of Buckingham in Brecon. From around mid-August his strand is entwined with that of his prisoner Bishop John Morton, who belongs to Lady Margaret Beaufort’s faction. Morton must have spotted some telltale signs of envy or resentment in the duke’s attitude to the newly crowned Richard, for in a very short space of time he was able to turn Buckingham’s head to the extent that he was persuaded to join the rebellion already brewing with the aim of restoring Edward V.

Polydore Vergil in his Anglica Historia is the best source of information about the Buckingham-Morton-Beaufort-Tudor conspiracy, thanks to his contacts at Henry Tudor’s court. We may be confident that, although massaged to present a spin complimentary to Tudor self-aggrandization, his account was gleaned virtually from the horse’s mouth.

Additionally, it appears Bishop Morton was so impressed with his own prowess that he set out the entire entrapment of Buckingham in an anti-Richard tract which survived for at least a century, although it has since disappeared. The existence of this tract was recorded around the turn of the 1500s/1600s by (among others) Sir George Buck, Master of the King’s Revels to King James I. Buck produced a History of King Richard III in which he stated categorically that Morton’s tract had come into the possession of Sir Thomas More. Sure enough, More’s History of King Richard III included a scene recounting the very words that Bishop Morton was supposed to have used to incite Buckingham to treason. The consensus among those who saw the tract seems to be that the duke was persuaded that he, rather than Richard, was more fit to wear the crown.

Vergil filled in the blank spaces by recounting how Morton, once Buckingham had taken the bait, sent messengers speeding between himself and Margaret Beaufort, reporting the good news that the duke was ready to betray his friend (this exchange of messengers can be traced to the middle two weeks of August).10 Lady Margaret, recognizing the importance of having split Buckingham from Richard, was so thrilled that she immediately sent large amounts of cash to Henry Tudor in Brittany. Vergil, of course, was given a different gloss on Buckingham’s motivation to rebel: not that he sought the crown for himself, but that he postulated a glorious vision of Henry Tudor on the throne of England with a daughter of Edward IV as his queen.11

Before we can continue with Buckingham’s strand, we first have to cross to Brittany to see who is doing what there, and with whom. After years spent sitting on his hands as a pensioner of Francis II, Henry Tudor has leapt into action with his new friend Sir Edward Woodville. Duke Francis, persuaded by the latter’s two stolen vessels and five-figure sums of treasure, as well as by new funding recently arrived from Henry’s mother, agrees to prepare and provision a flotilla of ships which is already being equipped in the first weeks of September.12

Since these preparations precede the September date on which not only the Crowland chronicler but also Polydore Vergil13 claim that the ‘princes’ were still alive in the Tower of London, we have to conclude that Francis II was duped into thinking he was supporting the Woodvilles’ attempts to restore the throne to Edward V.

This was also the rallying-cry of the rebels in England as Buckingham offered himself to them as their unlikely leader in overthrowing the rule of Richard III. At the end of August he had received a commission from a trusting Richard requiring him to investigate reports of uprisings that had broken out in London and the southern counties. Instead of bringing the rebels to justice, Buckingham toured the seats of rebellion in early September presenting his credentials as their brand new captain-in-chief – and, incredibly, they accepted him in that role. As the Crowland chronicler tells us, he now issued his public proclamation against Richard.14 Since we know that the king was still happily ordering monies to be paid over to Buckingham as late as 16 September,15 this proclamation cannot have been issued before about 10-12 September.

Continuing with the Crowland narrative, we now have a sudden change in circumstances. A rumour spreads like wildfire among the rebels that the king they want to restore, along with his brother, has met an unspecified but violent end. Now bereft of a champion, they are thrown into confusion. But one thing is certain in the following hiatus: they are not prepared to vote in Harry of Buckingham as their next candidate for king.16

There is, of course, no way that the rebels can confirm the fate or even the whereabouts of the boys. A decision must urgently be taken to cover the eventuality that the rumours may be correct, and at this point someone – probably the ever-helpful Morton – steps in to mention that Lady Margaret Beaufort happens to be negotiating a marriage contract between Henry Tudor and the eldest female heir of the ‘princes’. The rebels accordingly make Tudor their champion on the promise of this marriage.

The promise seems to have been offered and accepted without demur, even though it can have been made only by proxy, given that the principals in the matter were unavailable to confirm it. Which seems to suggest that the rebels may have regarded Tudor as a stopgap candidate, and were not necessarily convinced Edward V was actually dead.

So at this point all our four strands have come together. Buckingham has joined Morton and Margaret Beaufort in a rebellion that now has Henry Tudor catapulted to prominence as its figurehead. Sir Edward  Woodville, having sought Tudor support, now has rather more involvement from Henry and his mother than he bargained for. And Elizabeth Woodville finds her daughter promised to Henry Tudor without any of the quid pro quos that lay at the heart of the original deal.

Let us end by considering Elizabeth Woodville, tucked away in sanctuary, with a question-mark over the fate of her sons and the prospect of their claims being swept aside by Henry Tudor. Just how happy was she to have her boys written off in the space of a few days, while the restoration movement was hijacked by this adventurer from Brittany who clearly intended to use her daughter to set himself up in their place?

I have indicated that the marriage discussions began as a deal that would bring in the weight of the Beaufort-Tudor faction in favour of Edward V. The negotiating process would have been a protracted one, with each side jockeying for the best terms: what was the maximum Elizabeth could demand in return for her daughter, and what was the minimum to which Margaret Beaufort would commit while being able to secure a promise of marriage? It is reasonable to suppose that an agreement was close by the time Margaret sent money to Henry at about the end of August.

But then came the devastating news that Elizabeth’s sons were rumoured to be dead. I would argue that a frantic mother would never voluntarily accept any such rumour as true without instituting the most strenuous enquiries and searches. We know that Elizabeth took money and possessions with her into sanctuary, and had the wherewithal to hire agents to carry out her instructions. Even had she been told to her face that the boys were dead, would she not keep hoping it was just a ploy? Short of seeing their bodies for herself, what could possibly serve to convince her?

Yet too many people are still ready to accept the Tudor story that Elizabeth straightaway betrothed her daughter to the very man who posed the greatest threat to her sons while they remained alive. I say ‘straightaway’ because for this story to be true, she must have done so in the space of no more than a few days after the rumour broke.

This timeline is found by reckoning backwards from the latest date by which plans for the rebellion had resumed (so far as records show) after the hiatus caused by the rumour. This must have been by about 20 September, as indicated by the fact that Robert Morton, keeper of the rolls in chancery, was caught plotting, investigated, and replaced in his post by 22 September. On the following day action was taken against Bishop Lionel Woodville who also had become embroiled in the resumption of the rebellion.17

As mentioned above, Buckingham’s leadership proclamation could not have been issued before about 10-12 September. Therefore the rumour that ousted him from that position must have been spread after this point and before 20 September. That leaves a total of just seven to ten days in which (as is commonly – and erroneously – believed) Elizabeth Woodville heard the rumour of the death of her sons, investigated and believed it, then abandoned their cause so that Henry Tudor could claim the throne in right of his betrothal to her daughter.

Very soon afterwards, on 24 September, Buckingham sent letters to Henry Tudor urging him to invade England.18 By then Henry had been accepted as the rebels’ new champion and their initial panic at the rumours was over. For Elizabeth, however, I would argue it had only just begun.


1. Rhoda Edwards, The Itinerary of King Richard III, 1483-1485 (London, 1983).
2. Rosemary Horrox, Richard III: A Study of Service (Cambridge, 1989), pp.102-3.
3. Michael K Jones and Malcolm G.Underwood, The King’s Mother: Lady Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby (Cambridge, 1992), pp.60, 61.
4. Polydore Vergil, Anglica Historia (J.B. Nichols, 1846), book 25, p.194.
5. Bill Hampton, in ‘“Our trusty and wellbeloved servant and squire for our body”, Nicholas Baker alias Spicer’, The Ricardian, 2003, and Louise Gill, in Richard III and Buckingham’s Rebellion (Stroud, 1999, 2000) agree on Buckingham’s probable route to Brecon. He was certainly there on 23 August when an order passed under his personal signet: Gill, p.64.
6. John Stow, The Annales or Generall Chronicle of England (London, 1615), p.460; Thomas Basin, Histoire de Louis XI, ed. C. Samaran, vol 3, Les Classiques de l’histoire de France, vols 26, 29, 30 (Paris, 1972), p.234.
7. Horrox, A Study of Service, p.150; Gill, op cit, p.63.
8. Jones & Underwood, op cit, p.125; Gill, op cit, pp.63-4; Horrox, A Study of Service, p150.
9. The Crowland Chronicle Continuations 1459-1486, ed. Nicholas Pronay and John Cox (London, 1986), p.163.
10. Annette Carson, Richard III: The Maligned King (Stroud, 2008), p.138.
11. Vergil, Anglica Historia, book 25, pp.194-5.
12. Ralph A. Griffiths and Roger S. Thomas, The Making of the Tudor Dynasty (Stroud, 1993), p.102.
13. Vergil, Anglica Historia, book 25, p.188.
14. Crowland Chronicle, p.163.
15. British Library Harleian MS 433, ed. R.E. Horrox and P.W. Hammond (Upminster and London, 1979-83), vol. I, pp.3-4.
16. Crowland Chronicle, p.163.
17. Horrox, A Study of Service, pp.151-2, citing BL Harleian MS 433 vol. II, pp.23-4; Gill, op cit, p.64.
18. Rolls of Parliament, vol. 6, pp.244-9.

© Annette Carson, 2008