On the morning of June 25th 1483 three men, one a brother and one a son of the recently widowed Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, the other, an elder statesman, were executed by beheading at Pontefract Castle (sometimes known as Pomfret Castle)
The brother was Antony Woodville, Earl Rivers. A learned, pious man and known for his chivalric interests, he had served the late King, Edward 1V well for many years. In 1473 the king had appointed Antony as governor to his son and heir; and nephew and uncle had lived at Ludlow Castle in Shropshire since that time.
The son was Sir Richard Grey and also half-brother to the twelve year old prince of Wales.
The elder statesman was Sir Thomas Vaughan who had served the prince since infancy and was his chamberlain. Sir Thomas had also been a loyal Yorkist for well over two decades.
The events that led to the executions began on April 9, 1483, with the death of Edward IV. Edward V was but twelve years of age at the time of his father’s death. The chronicler Mancini indicates that Edward IV had named his brother Richard in his will as the young king’s protector, but the Crowland chronicler does not indicate any such arrangement, and Edward IV’s will is not extant to confirm or deny it. What emerges when Mancini and Crowland’s accounts are read together is that Edward IV’s councilors did not want the family of the queen, Elizabeth Woodville, to dominate the new king’s government, but that some were also reluctant to see Gloucester in sole control. The councilors did agree on a coronation date of May 4, and Crowland reports that Elizabeth Woodville advised her brother Rivers, who would be taking Edward IV to London, to appease the opposition on the council by having no more than two thousand men escort the new king into London.
Both Edward V himself and Richard were far away from London when Edward IV died. Edward V was with his household at Ludlow, under the supervision of Rivers. Richard was at Middleham in the north, where his power base lay. Both men began heading toward London, as did the Duke of Buckingham. Though Buckingham was a wealthy man, he had never played a prominent part in the government of Edward IV, and he seems to have seized upon the death of Edward IV as an opportunity to extend his influence.
Gloucester, Buckingham, and Rivers had agreed to meet somewhere along the way so that the king’s entry to the city might be more magnificent. On April 29, Gloucester and Buckingham each arrived at Northampton, while Rivers, along with the king and his escort, went further south to Stony Stratford. The young king was awaiting Richard at Stony Stratford with a small household, having dispersed most of his attendants even closer to the city so that there would be more space for his uncle when he arrived.
Leaving the king behind at Stony Stratford, Rivers, and perhaps Richard Grey, backtracked to Northampton and met Gloucester and Buckingham there. By all accounts, the men passed a convivial evening, and Rivers stayed the night. He could not have suspected that it was the last night he would spend as a free man. But that was the case: the next morning, Rivers was taken prisoner by Gloucester and Buckingham.
Richard Grey was also taken prisoner on April 30, either at the same time as Rivers or later in Stony Stratford, where Gloucester and Buckingham rode to meet the king. There, Edward V’s chamberlain, Thomas Vaughan, was also seized. The shocked king was informed by Gloucester and Buckingham that his attendants were conspiring against him and that Gloucester was the man best suited to serve as protector. The young king made a spirited speech in defense of his men, but realized that he had no choice but to agree to Gloucester’s plans for him. The royal attendants who had not been arrested were ordered to disperse. Leaderless without Rivers, they obeyed.
Gloucester, Buckingham, and the king proceeded to London, reaching it the day of the planned coronation, which never took place. In response to reports that he had seized the king with the intent of gaining his crown, Gloucester had sent letters to the council and to the mayor of London stating that he had rescued the king from his enemies. Gloucester also put four cartloads of weapons in front of the king’s procession, claiming that they had been stored outside the capital by the queen’s family to use against Gloucester himself. Contemporary reports show that many knew this charge to be false, as the weapons had been stored when war was being waged against Scotland.
Was there a conspiracy to ambush Gloucester? Personally, I think it unlikely; as really, why would Rivers go back to Northampton to meet with Gloucester and Buckingham. And why did he spend the evening eating and drinking with them and then allow himself to be persuaded to spend the night there?
I believe that, had Rivers intended to get the King to London before Gloucester arrived there, he would have refused to stay in Northampton and gone back to Stony Stratford as soon as possible. To act as he did if he was plotting any wrong-doing he would have to have been either very naive or very stupid. I really don’t think Antony was either. Perhaps he was a little too trusting of a man he felt he had no reason not to trust.
However, next morning, Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan were parted and swiftly sent north; Rivers to Sheriff Hutton, Grey to Middleham, and Vaughan to Pontefract. Richard Haute, Edward V’s comptroller, seems to have been arrested and imprisoned as well, though he was apparently pardoned.
What happened next is well known. Plans, in good faith or otherwise, were made for Edward V’s coronation, and Edward V was lodged in the Tower, soon to be joined by his younger brother. On June 13, 1483, William Hastings, Edward IV’s chamberlain and closest friend, was executed without trial. Soon it was put about first that Edward IV was a bastard, then (more successfully) that he had been pre-contracted to an Eleanor Butler before his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville and that the children of that marriage were therefore bastards. With Edward V’s impending deposition and the council terrorized into docility by the execution of Hastings and the arrests of others, there was nothing standing in the way of the executions of Rivers, Grey, and Vaughan. The future Richard III therefore ordered their deaths.
The day before their executions, Rivers and Grey were moved to join Vaughan at Pontefract, where the Earl of Northumberland and Sir Richard Ratcliff presided over their executions, witnessed by troops making their way toward London at Gloucester’s command in case trouble arose over Gloucester’s claim to the throne.
Some sources report Vaughan on his way to the block as speaking of a prophecy that “G” would destroy Edward IV’s children, but it is highly unlikely that any of the men would have been allowed to hold forth in this fashion with an audience present. Probably the prisoners were silent as they were led to the block or confined their words to prayer.
The beheaded bodies were supposedly stripped ( where it was discovered that Rivers was wearing a hair shirt beneath his fine clothes) and thrown into a common grave at a nearby monastery. This report may not be altogether true, though, as Vaughan ultimately came to rest in Westminster Abbey. It is possible, of course, that his body was retrieved after Richard III’s own fall. The inscription on his tomb read, “To love and wait upon,” a motto that describes Vaughan’s service far more aptly than Richard’s “Loyaulte me lie.” (Loyalty Binds Me) By executing with little or no cause the men to whom his brother Edward IV had entrusted the care of his son, Richard had proven his loyalty to his brother and to his brother’s heir to be a very transient thing.