Part Fourteen: Buckingham’s Rebellion


The rebellion of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham in the autumn of 1483 is perplexing because it’s impossible to nail down a motivation for it. Arguably no one was better rewarded by Richard’s assumption of power and Buckingham positioned himself as an Earl of Warwick-type figure in the second and third quarters of 1483 – in other words, a kingmaker. His fall from grace was remarkably self-inflicted and a confusing wrinkle in the study of Richard III. So, let’s dig in, but first, if you missed Part Thirteen, you can catch up here and I recommend reading through this timeline of 1483 for some context if you haven’t already.

In order the parse Buckingham’s downfall, we need to understand his rise. Henry Stafford was born in September 1455, three years after Richard and just four months after the Wars of the Roses’ first battle at St Albans. The family’s head at that time was his grandfather, Humphrey Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, whose marriage to Anne Neville (sister to Richard’s mother, Cecily) made him kin to the burgeoning House of York. As discussed earlier, he was an interesting figure in the first half of the Wars of the Roses because he started out as a politically neutral figure, serving as a go-between for York and Henry VI.

He was able to serve that position thanks to his own credentials as a rare English duke and the fact that the Staffords were an old, powerful family. Indeed, his mother was a granddaughter of King Edward III. He was also linked by blood to the Beauforts – in fact, his eldest son and heir, Humphrey, married a Lady Margaret Beaufort, daughter to Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset (killed in the Battle of St Albans). It is from this marriage that our Henry Stafford was born.

Another link to the Beauforts came via the marriage of Humphrey Stafford’s second son, another Henry Stafford, when he married another Lady Margaret Beaufort in 1458. I know, I know, the names are horribly confusing and duplicative. This Margaret Beaufort is the Margaret Beaufort of Wars of the Roses fame, and this was her second marriage, her first having been to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond, which produced the future Henry VII. But in 1458, she was a young, widowed mother and marriage into the Stafford family provided her some much-needed protection…as well as a fortune for her new husband.

As for our Henry Stafford, born in the aftershock of that first battle, he was second in line to inherit his grandfather’s duchy. He unexpectedly came a step close when his father died prematurely in 1458, leaving him the earldom of Stafford. In 1460, at the age of five, he became duke of Buckingham following his grandfather’s death at the Battle of Northampton. Fortunes turned yet again when Edward IV assumed power in 1461, at which point he became a ward of the crown. That meant Edward was empowered to arrange his marriage, which he did in February 1466 by marrying him to Queen Elizabeth’s youngest sister, Katherine Woodville.

Legend has it that Henry – who I’m going to revert to calling Buckingham for the rest of this post – resented being married so far below his station, but that’s a complicated theory. It’s entirely plausible that the Staffords as a whole considered the Woodvilles upstarts, but the fact of the matter was that England had a Woodville queen and there was some benefit to being allied close to the crown. Children at the time of their wedding, we don’t know when exactly they began living together, but it was by at least 1477 because their eldest son, Edward, was born in February 1478. They went on to have three more children – Elizabeth, Henry, and Anne – all of whom would become significant players during the reign of Henry VIII. Their youngest child, Anne, was born in 1483 and was almost certainly named after Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville.

We know very little about Buckingham’s marriage to Katherine Woodville, but it put him in an interesting position. By marriage, he could claim inclusion in the Woodville faction, but he seems to have rejected that notion in the power struggle after Edward IV’s death. Instead, he aligned himself with Richard in opposition to them. If Buckingham had a Woodville vendetta, I would argue it had less to do with protesting his marriage and more to do with him being shunted from the forefront of power during Edward IV’s reign, which he may well have viewed as his birthright.

An interesting glimpse of him comes in 1475 when he accompanied Edward and Richard on the French campaign. Notably, he returned to England before the peace treaty was signed that summer, indicating that he took a similar view of it to Richard. It’s possible that moment provided a bonding experience between the two men. Whatever the case, clearly some relationship formed in the second half of the 1470s and early 1480s because Buckingham was quick to rush to Richard’s side the moment Edward IV’s death was announced.

His Woodville wife thus created any number of awkward scenarios to imagine. While Richard and Buckingham solidified power on the Council, Katherine’s sister, nieces, and nephews were hiding in sanctuary not far away. When Richard finally ordered the execution of Anthony Woodville and Richard Grey in late June, he was killing Katherine’s brother and nephew. So, how things were going within the Stafford home is anyone’s guess…but it is fun to guess.

Regardless, Buckingham played a prominent role in Richard’s coronation on July 6. Shortly thereafter Richard made what would prove a fatal decision to his reign: he left London. It was semi-traditional for the king and queen to take an annual summer progress, allowing them to be seen by their people outside of the greater London area. It was also semi-traditional for there to be a post-coronation tour through the countryside. This was the tack Richard and Anne took in the summer of 1483, but it was arguably poorly conceived given the recent turmoil. It’s notable, however, that Richard felt comfortable doing so. Clearly he didn’t think he was in danger to imminent threats to his authority.

As July unfolded, Buckingham continued to be rewarded by Richard. The two even met in Gloucester on July 31. Less than three months later, Richard would learn that Buckingham betrayed him. So, what happened?

For starters, we have to consider the timing. Buckingham’s rebellion took place in late September and early- to mid-October, marking it as coming after when the “Princes in the Tower” are traditionally believed to have been murdered. Thus, there is one school of thought that Buckingham went against Richard because he took umbrage at the murder of children. That is certainly possible.

Also significant is the purported goal of this rebellion, which was to replace Richard on the throne with Henry Tudor. Tudor had long been a thorn in the Yorkists’ side – as Henry VI’s half-nephew with Beaufort blood, he had a dubious claim to the throne, but he was still a figurehead for what remained of Lancastrian resistance. What doesn’t make sense is why Buckingham would decide to throw his lot behind Tudor when he had (arguably) as legitimate a claim to the throne. Buckingham was a descendant of Edward III – while Tudor was, too, it was via the Beauforts who had had to go through the rigors of having themselves declared legitimate in the 1390s.

A further turn of events was that Henry Tudor sought to marry Elizabeth of York, thus fusing Lancastrian and Yorkist claims. That is, however, a simplification because as of the summer of 1483, Elizabeth was legally a bastard and whatever her “claim” was, it was undermined by that of her younger brothers…if they were still living. Certainly that Tudor sought to marry Elizabeth is evidence that at least some portion of this cast of characters believed the boys dead. At the very least, it can be read that way.

At some point in late July, just days prior to Richard and Buckingham meeting in Gloucester, news reached Richard that something had happened in London. I say “something,” because we don’t know exactly what save that people were arrested and the area around Westminster became heavily guarded. It stands to reason there was some effort afoot to ferry Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters out of sanctuary, but the details are scant. It’s also notable that whatever it was that happened, it didn’t prompt Richard to return to London.

The Crowland Chronicle writes that Buckingham was urged against Richard by Bishop Morton, who came into his custody in mid-June. It doesn’t mention Henry Tudor at this juncture, but does mention rumors that Edward V and Richard, Duke of York were murdered, underlining the fact that their deaths were assumed by at least some during Richard III’s reign. It’s also worth noting that if these rumors existed, they not only bolstered Elizabeth of York’s desirability as a wife for Henry Tudor, but also cleared the path for Buckingham to potentially secure the throne for himself.

News of another potential uprising likely reached Richard on September 21st, at which pointed he moved from York to Pontefract Castle. The following day, Elizabeth Woodville’s brother, Lionel, Bishop of Salisbury, had all of his possessions seized, making clear his involvement. The full scale of the threat wasn’t revealed until October 10, by which point he was on his way back to London, arriving on the 11th. It was at this point that Rich learned of Buckingham’s role in the uprising. By the 22nd, he was in Leicester with an army and issued a general proclamation calling out the rebellion. Among those accused of treason was also Elizabeth Woodville’s eldest son, Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, who was specifically singled out for having slept with Edward IV’s mistress, Jane Shore. Others included men who would later fight for Henry Tudor at Bosworth, but the leaders were named as Buckingham, Bishop Morton, and Lionel Woodville.

By then the revolt was flailing and Buckingham was unable to even leave Wales. He attempted to escape, but was apprehended and handed over, and finally executed in Salisbury on November 2, 1483.

As Richard’s biographer, Matthew Lewis, notes, much of our insight for the logistics of the uprising come from the Parliamentary records that followed, but those strove to paint a picture of a single, failed endeavor. Thus, Buckingham was colluding with the Woodvilles and Henry Tudor, but if that was true, it was a disorganized gambit – and a confusing one. The initial uprising in London appeared to be prompted by a desire to restore Edward V and Woodville supremacy, while Buckingham’s potential invasion from Wales and Henry Tudor’s potential invasion from Brittany look disconnected.

At first blush, the idea that Buckingham would use this moment to oust Richard for his own claim appears unlikely. After all, England already had two kings – Richard III and Edward V – to choose from; why would they settle on a third? Well, for the same reason that Henry Tudor saw this moment to promote himself. The Yorkists were in chaos and there was still Lancastrian sentiment dormant through England. Buckingham had just as good a – if not better – claim to the throne than Henry Tudor, so why not? For an ambitious man it makes more sense then casting his lot in with a man who he’d never met and trying to strike a better deal than that which he had under Richard.

And yet, worth noting is that Bishop Morton was in communication with both Buckingham and Henry Tudor’s mother, Margaret Beaufort. Buckingham and Lady Margaret were also loosely tried through marriage – Lady Margaret’s second husband was once Buckingham’s uncle. That still leaves the question: Why would Buckingham turn against Richard for the Tudor cause?

There’s a case to be made that Buckingham and Tudor were both launching invasions, each with the goal of placing themselves on the throne. The only difference is that Buckingham was captured and killed, so the details of his rebellion were easy enough to brush away and fuse with other uprisings. Henry Tudor, on the other hand, was pushed back into Brittany by bad weather and lived to tell the tale. His invasion was concretely tied to the idea that he would marry Elizabeth of York once king, a plan to which Elizabeth Woodville agreed – an issue we’ll return to next time.

However you come down on this particular episode of Richard’s reign, it’s one of the more confused and yet potentially key to whether the “Princes in the Tower” were still alive by the autumn of 1483.

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