More Than a King and a Car Park: The Supporting Cast of Fifteenth Century Leicestershire.
As one of our most beloved playwrights tells us, “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” A fair commentary indeed; I am sure most of us would agree, and I am even more sure that when we think of history, certain key players spring to mind.
English kings and queens of bygone centuries are immortalised not only by Shakespeare, but by chronicles, castles, museums, architecture, fiction, non-fiction, lessons at school, songs, nursery rhymes, films, documentaries, street names and even game shows. Our unquenchable thirst for knowledge of the past so frequently uncovers new and exciting discoveries which have the ability to create a buzz so infectious that it can reach international eyes and ears within hours, even minutes, thanks to the advent of social media. One particular buzz – of a royal disposition – first resonated against the tarmac of a certain council car park in the city of Leicester in September 2012.
The county of Leicestershire is nestled in the heart of the Midlands, in the metaphorical no-mans-land somewhere between the north and the south of England. It has received surprisingly little recognition for its wealth of history and heritage (car parks, foxhunting and Walkers crisps aside) which, for a local historian, is somewhat exasperating. The discovery of Richard III was, without doubt, a rare and heart-stopping revelation. Perhaps Shakespeare himself would have been compelled to peer into the depths of a muddy archaeological trench in Leicester to see how this one particular player of his had faired through the centuries, but what of the rest of the cast? The story did not begin or end with Richard’s death on a field in Leicestershire; the county has many more tales to tell.
The reader may be as familiar with the defeat of Richard III at Bosworth as they are with the tale of Lady Jane Grey – the tragic “Nine Day Queen”; a Leicestershire noblewoman executed by Mary Tudor in 1553. Whilst Jane’s story is as tragic as it is fascinating, that of her forebears is woven into the fifteenth-century series of dynastic conflicts – the Wars of the Roses – which effectively culminated in the death of Richard III in 1485 and arguably ended in 1487 at the Battle of Stoke. These conflicts did not just affect the royal hand which held the crown of England, but the many thousands of hands which held the swords to keep it.
Lady Jane Grey was born and raised in the north-west of the county – at Bradgate Park – the family seat (or caput honoris) of the Greys of Groby. Her great-great-grandfather, the Lancastrian knight Sir John Grey of Groby, was directly involved in the Wars of the Roses; he was killed on 17th February 1461 at the Second Battle of St. Albans fighting in the name of the Lancastrian Henry VI against the Yorkist claimant, Edward, 4th Duke of York. Sir John left behind a widow and two sons, Richard and Thomas, both under the age of six. All three family members would live on to make their own mark on the backdrop of English history.
A little over a month later, two more Leicestershire families felt the full force of Fortune’s wheel. The Battle of Towton was fought on 29thMarch 1461 and is reputed to have been Britain’s bloodiest battle to date: at least 20,000 men were killed. Approximately one-tenth of all Englishmen and Welshmen of military age (between 16 and 60) have been estimated by Professor Charles Ross to have fought at Towton. The Yorkist victory inflicted a less than favourable result for the defeated Lancastrians. The Lancastrian knight Sir William Beaumont, 2nd Viscount Beaumont – a major landowner in Leicestershire – was imprisoned and stripped of his lands and titles in the aftermath; he later fought for Henry Tudor at Bosworth. His cousin, Sir John Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire was killed and his lands were transferred to a local Yorkist supporter – Sir Richard Hastings.
The caput honoris of the Hastings family was sited at Kirby Muxloe, approximately fifteen miles from Coleorton and less than four miles from the Grey family seat at Groby. Kirby Muxloe had been in possession of the Hastings family since 1365, and Sir Richard’s father, Sir Leonard Hastings, had fought at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. Sir Leonard’s older son, William Hastings – arguably the most powerful individual in the county during this period – had fought for the house of York at Towton and was knighted on the field, later becoming Lord Chamberlain and close confidante of the Yorkist victor, Edward IV. Edward would go on to stimulate mass controversy in 1464 by wedding a reputedly beautiful young widow (who may sound somewhat familiar) – her first husband, Sir John Grey, was killed at the Second Battle of St. Albans leaving behind two sons – one Elizabeth Woodville.
The marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville effectively – yet briefly – aligned the interests of the Grey and Hastings family in their dedication to their king; an alignment which, as the pages of history would dictate, would not last to see the turn of the fifteenth century. Edward’s Lord Chamberlain, William Lord Hastings, was the older brother of Sir Richard Hastings and acquired a considerable number of landholdings in Leicestershire for his services to the crown, often at the expense of defeated Lancastrians. He began to build a stunning castle of red brick at Kirby Muxloe in 1480 which, sadly, was never completed probably due to his sudden and unexpected death in 1483 at the hands of Richard III.
Hastings’ local rival and oldest son of Sir John Grey and Elizabeth Woodville, Thomas Grey, 1st Marquis of Dorset (who had somewhat intriguingly married Hastings’ step-daughter in 1474) followed suit twenty years later with a red brick house at Bradgate Park. Whilst he died only months after construction started, the work was completed by his son, Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquis of Dorset. Both the Greys’ house and Hastings’ castle at Kirby Muxloe have survived to today in varying states of repair and are well-worth a visit. The families’ rivalry extended beyond architecture to include – according to Sir Thomas More – competition for the carnal affections of one Jane Shore, who was also coincidentally the mistress of their king.
The aftermath of the death of Edward IV instigated the somewhat shaky accession of Richard III. His rise did not only spell trouble for the doomed Lord Chamberlain, William Hastings, but according to popular opinion also placed the young royal princes, Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York, in great danger. Hastings’ fate was sealed by Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Thou art a traitor: Off with his head! Now, by Saint Paul I swear, I will not dine until I see the same.” The sons of Sir John Grey and Elizabeth Woodville were also in the firing line: Sir Richard Grey was arrested whilst escorting his young step-brother, Edward V, to London and later executed, whilst his older brother, Thomas Grey, escaped to join the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against Richard III. After the rebellion failed Thomas fled to Brittany to join the soon-to-be victorious forces of Henry Tudor, and was kept under close surveillance until his death in 1501.
The rivalry between the Grey and Hastings family extended far beyond the bloody days of the Wars of the Roses. William Hastings’ grandson, George Hastings, 1st Earl of Huntingdon and Thomas Grey’s son, Thomas Grey, 2nd Marquis of Dorset, are reported to have been heavily reprimanded after George showed up at the court of Henry VIII with a large retinue; Thomas responded in kind by increasing his own! Nearly a century later, the feud continued into the English Civil War with the Hastings family as royalists and the Greys as parliamentarians. The impact of the Civil War can be seen at Ashby de la Zouch Castle – yet another of William Lord Hastings’ creations – which was partially demolished after the royalists were forced to surrender.
So. As it stands today, Leicestershire is able to boast a considerable amount of history. I have only covered the tip of the iceberg with just a handful of the prominent families in Leicestershire during the fifteenth century. It is highly likely that your own county has its own fascinating links to the bigger picture and a plethora of history in its own right; it is my ultimate aim to prove that one does not have to visit the great palaces and churches of London to become closer to national history – it is already present in the towns and villages nearby. It is equally as important to understand that even if there are no relations to royalty or the great wars of centuries past, the cast members of local history remain just as fascinating and just as important.
It is not my intention in any way to detract from the historical and archaeological merits of the discovery of Richard III, but I do think it’s important to appreciate that there is life – and indeed history – beyond the king and the car park.
© The History Vault