Such Is My Dance by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
Such Is My Dance 
(Dorothy Davies)


Prologue:

I was born on the 21st June 1442, had a wonderful childhood, an adventurous and dangerous life, two wonderful wives, lived in the most beautiful homes and held the highest offices in the land. On the 25th June 1483, four days after my 41st birthday, I walked out into the bright summer sunshine to lay my head on a block in order to have it severed from my body. I thought it then; I’ve said it since; that is one messy way to die. Blood everywhere; very undignified. They tell me it’s an execution reserved for aristocrats. I say, bring on the peasantry, hanging would have been better, less gore.
That’s a summary of my life. But, like most people, you’ll want to know more than that; you’ll want to know the whys and wherefores, the whole scenario of 15th century England. So that is what I’ll give you.

England at that time was a divided nation; aristocracy and the rest of the population and never the two shall meet. Peasants, working people, went about their lives as they had always done, farming the land, scraping a living, being born, being buried, no matter who ‘owned’ the land they farmed or the houses in which they gave birth, lived their lives and died. Allegiance to their lord, the owner of the land, came as standard: they paid their rent to his rent collector and answered his call to arms when an array was issued because that was the way of life. If they died in battle for their lord, well, that too was part of life. You went to fight, you expected either to go home rich with looted items or to die, but at least you died a hero’s death even if it was through being hacked to pieces by another Englishman. It seems incomprehensible to me now, at this distance of time, that major battles could be fought with hundreds if not thousands of men in armour or as armed as best they could be with bows, axes and spears, charging into the affray, hacking at their fellow men, bringing them down, suffocating them by fighting on and over their fallen bodies. All this whilst people in the surrounding countryside carried on their lives, not knowing – or caring – that such life and death confrontations were taking place.
Craftsmen pursued their many trades, blacksmiths, carpenters, mercers, cooks and many others, making a living in a time when a living was precarious for the political climate was ever changing and taxes could be imposed or increased at any moment, damaging livelihoods. Guilds were set up to protect the craftsmen as best they could, but even they were powerless before the sweeping changes brought in by a change of monarchy and a new set of laws.
The aristocracy, with their fine clothes, big houses and seemingly immense wealth were a world away from the average land-working people of England. The aristocracy fought each other, sometimes politely, sometimes savagely, for land, positions, money and possessions. Great homes, castles, estates, were sometimes the gift of the reigning monarch, sometimes deeded by family, sometimes acquired by marriage settlements. Catching the king’s attention, being on the winning side in one of the many battles fought across the land or marrying well to gain property and titles was a way of life. Fashion was slavishly followed even if it appeared foolish, for example, the long pointed toes on men’s shoes and the plucked hairlines to create very high foreheads for ladies seem strange even by medieval standards. Yet we went along with it, because it was wise to do so. The one thing you didn’t do was stand out.
A strict hierarchy was in place among aristocrats: the king’s permission had to be sought for a marriage and there were rigid rules about who took precedence over whom at banquets and State occasions. The person appointed to carry the train of a queen or to hold a child at a christening told the rest of the society how high you were in the king or queen’s favour.
Once there, once breathing the heady atmosphere that was the intrigue of court, people were almost prisoners, having to seek the king’s permission to be excused Court to attend to business, for example, or go on a pilgrimage. Life was controlled to a very great degree by the reigning monarch. Families relied on him for their income, for clothing, for shelter and support and in turn he dictated their lives in many respects.
Kings were expected to marry well, with the intention that the marriage should create or reinforce treaties with other countries, cement relationships between monarchs to avoid future problems and bring wealth and power to both sides. Dukes and Earls likewise were expected to marry into money or landed wealth to bring greater prosperity to the family.
Loyalty to one’s lord and one’s liege lord, the king, should have been taken for granted but unfortunately human beings are fickle creatures, led by many different emotions, everything from lust to jealousy. The best-laid plans of many an aristocrat were often overturned in a moment. Executions were considered normal and death was a constant, either through disease or fighting. Battles were a way of gaining glory, if you were on the winning side. Assignations were indiscreet and all but expected if you were a real ‘man-about-Court’.
The ruling monarch at the time this story begins was the devout and mentally unstable Henry VI, a Lancastrian monarch, a man more fitted to the life of seclusion in the cloisters than the ravages of monarchy with all its many problems. These problems were enhanced by his powerful, ambitious, scheming wife, Margaret of Anjou, who held the monarchy together but whose machinations caused many difficulties. There were ambitious claimants to the throne of England; they too added their share to the difficulties besetting the royalty and aristocrats of England.
Taken overall, it was a time of courtly courtesy and conspiracy, power play and paranoia, chivalry and charlatans, knights and knaves, masques and manoeuvrings, dances and death.


Chapter 1 - Early life and family

I came into this uncertain, ever-changing world on the 21st June 1442: born to Richard Wydeville, Knight, and his wife Jacquetta of Luxemburg, dowager Duchess of Bedford, in a manor house in the sleepy village of Grafton in Northamptonshire. It didn’t feel like a sleepy village to me for some years, but then, for some of it I was nothing more than a sleepy baby.
I think of tiny me, wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in my cradle in the corner of the room while the midwife and ladies attended to my mother. I didn’t know I was destined for high rank and power in the medieval world, someone who would become a person demonstrating a startling array of talents (I say this with all modesty) and one who, ultimately, would clash with the person who could – and did – order my death. But that was in the future. Before then I could sleep without fore-knowledge of the great state occasions, the tournaments, the Court celebrations, the countries to be visited and the translating work to come. In many ways it was just as well I did not know that the ‘storms of fortune’ – to quote words from my book - would crash over me. Sometimes I feel it is best that people do not know what lies ahead of them, for surely they would not wish to walk the path of Life if they did.

This book is a chance for me to set the record straight on about a million mistakes which have crept into history books – all right, that might be a small exaggeration, we are not that well known a family – or are we? Let’s make it 500,000 mistakes then, certainly it feels that way when I look at the books and sigh over yet another error, another mis-spelling of my name or another set of dates which don’t match up with a) common sense and b) known facts.
We are Wydevilles. We are known as popinjays, traitors, usurpers and ambitious schemers. The name has come down through your history in a variety of ways and with a variety of descriptions attached to it:
Sympathetic: the hapless beautiful Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV and her tragic sons who were lodged in the Tower and never seen again, creating a mystery which has blighted the reign of Richard III ever since;
Hostile: Wydevilles everywhere, taking over the court, having the king’s ear and confidence, taking honours and positions which others thought were due to them;
Upstarts: power-hungry schemers, plotters and planners, having their hand in the effort to out-flank Richard of Gloucester and get the young Edward V to London for his coronation;
Misunderstood: in truth only obeying Edward IV’s wishes and instructions. Whatever part of Edward IV’s reign anyone reads, a Wydeville will be there. How they are perceived depends on the bias of the historian who is writing at that time.
Our name was written in a variety of ways: Wydvill, Wodeville, Wouldwithe, Oudeville and Wydeville. No one paid much attention to standardising words, names and spellings back then, it was an accepted fact that you could read whatever someone wrote and make sense of it without worrying about such things. We wrote with quills, a slow, laborious, tedious way of writing, not like the speed with which my words are currently being translated into ‘print’ on a bright screen. We just got the words down whichever way we could and if that meant taking a wild guess at the spelling of someone’s name, that’s what happened.
We were initially loyal Lancastrians, poor by the standards of the aristocracy of our time, rich in ambition and endlessly power hungry. There was little room in our lives for anything but the pursuance of power, without it money would be in short supply and many would go without.

We had a proud history. My grandfather, Richard Wydvill, was Esquire to the Body of the Duke of Bedford, a prestigious position that brought honours and some wealth. These positions were highly prized and coveted by many because once among the rich, famous and influential at Court, a courtier had the chance to make contacts, curry favours, carry out favours and use the influence gained to further the family’s cause at all times. From this honoured position it could be seen that the family had some standing in court, or he – Grandfather - would not have been there. Where and how we gained the status does not seem to be recorded anywhere and no one said anything about it, not in my hearing anyway. Maybe an earlier Wydeville bought their way in through favours and chivalric acts of some kind or a fortunate marriage, of the kind which happened later in our family. Luck, fate, that most capricious of things, no doubt had a good deal to do with it.
What I am about to say here is background for what is to come in my life story. It took me a long time to work out the balance of power, the reason for the addiction of court life, the way to handle it. I almost came unstuck a few times, if I can use that expression in a historical book. It was not easy and took some understanding, but this is how a medieval court worked.
A court centres itself round the central figure, be that king, queen or whoever. Around the royal family are the courtiers and servants and theirs is, in truth, a tricky balancing act. Serve the king or queen with a degree of submission but not so much that the others around you notice and move in to depose you in some way. Walk the tightrope of perfect servility whilst ensuring others did not notice your attempts to curry favour. And so the velvet glove was always used: you flattered as you trod heavily on toes or apologised as you shoved someone aside, you smiled as you killed, in such a way that it looked to be the epitome of elegance on your part. Those who did not learn very quickly to be duplicitous were trodden on and thrown out with the rushes when the floors were cleared every Spring.
Court was a seething hotbed of paranoia, gossip, slander and innuendo: the trick was to sieve the information and take from it what which was truthful, ignoring the rest unless it was choice enough to be passed on to someone who would be eager to hear it. Favours for favours and they could be achieved in many ways.
It was a way of life that for some became addictive, whilst others yearned for and longed to escape to the sanctuary of their country homes where they were the lords and ladies and others deferred to them. But even away from court it was necessary to keep up standards, to follow the fashion of the day, to be abreast of the gossip – for which read slander – so you were not caught out when you went back into the hothouse once more. Everyone had their ordinary informants; those who could afford it set up an extensive spy system as well to ensure nothing escaped their attention that would damage their reputation, their wealth or their life.
Now you can begin to see what I mean. It was a very strange way of life.
Court life also meant a good deal of travelling abroad, especially to France. The marriage of John of Bedford to Anne of Burgundy was just one of the great state occasions at which a Wydeville was present: Grandfather Richard Wydvill was part of the duke’s retinue of trusted friends. But there was also work to be done in England; among other honours, he held the position of Governor of the Tower of London. He had plenty to do in the service of the crown.
My father, also called Richard, was so good-looking that I heard it said some declared he was the most handsome man in England. In a time when everyone at court was handsome or beautiful, he had to be outstanding for this accolade to be given to him. We were - and are – a most handsome/good-looking family. I do wonder if some of the seemingly universal dislike of the Wydevilles stems from the jealousy our good looks, natural good manners and ability to make our way in court life generated. Just a thought.
Father too had a place in the hothouse of court, as esquire to the Duke of Bedford. This gave him considerable standing and would have made him a desirable bachelor. A man of many skills and high chivalric values, my father. He was knighted by Henry VI at Leicester in 1426 when he was just 21. He served the duke in France and thus knew, and served, the duke’s second wife, the young, vibrant, beautiful, ambitious Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.
We were referred to as upstarts but my mother, Jacquetta of Luxemburg, was of noble descent; her father was Peter of Luxemburg, Count of St Pol and her mother was Margaret del Baizo, daughter of Francis, Duke of Andria. The addition of Luxemburg to her name indicates she was part of one of the great European families of the time. In an age where lineage, blood and property were everything, the young Jacquetta was a magnet for every bachelor who aspired to further his station in life. It was a known fact in the family that she was just seventeen when she was introduced to the Duke of Bedford, by then an elderly, lonely widower and an alliance was made which led to their marriage. This was a political move: it cemented one treaty between England and Burgundy, whilst upsetting another between England and France. In a time when treaties were regularly made and broken, this was no great surprise. My mother came to England for the first time in 1433 to secure her dower, then returned to France with her ageing husband to arrange his household to suit herself. That is not part of family lore but I know my mother…
My father, being part of the household, no doubt cast covetous eyes in the direction of the new bride, possibly envying the old man his youthful, exuberant wife. At least, that’s the way I see it. I picked much of this up from overhearing the idle chatter of servants. Mother and Father never spoke of the way they met. They were just – there.
The age difference between the duke and his new wife was considerable and, as it was the duke’s household, it is likely that there was not much in the way of entertainment, dances and so on, for his young duchess to enjoy. Politically it was a good marriage, but may not have been so good in terms of romance, courtship and delights. Mother did so like her gifts, her parties, her friends and – I have to say this – her intrigues.
So we have this scenario.
Richard Wydeville, my handsome father, part of the duke’s household.
Jacquetta, my beautiful mother, a beautiful seventeen year old girl, ripe for romance, when she marries the ageing infirm duke.
It is not hard to envision the most handsome man in England taking every opportunity to be in the presence of the Duchess of Bedford, being of service to her, without making it too obvious.
The duke was not a well man and his health quickly declined after the wedding. He lived for a further two years, that’s all. Yes, you can devise all manner of reasons why he did not last very long… and you may well be right. I am not going to speculate, not in print anyway and certainly not when my mother is around to exert her considerable influence on me, even now! After his death in 1435, Mother became one of the most desirable widows in Europe: she was not only beautiful, she was wealthy. Father was part of the escort which brought her to England to settle her late husband’s affairs. I am speculating here, because I do so love a romance, that there would have been opportunities on the journey to the port, then on the seemingly endless sea journey to England, for the two young people to begin to get to know one another. Although Mother had an entourage of ladies, there were surely moments when eye contact could be made and equally it can be imagined her ladies fluttering their eyelashes and fans at the handsome knight, which would have drawn Mother’s attention to him again if she had not already noticed him. He would be more than familiar to her, someone she had perhaps secretly desired but not dared to express any feelings because of her position.
No matter what preceded or indeed happened on this journey to England, the facts are that a courtship began and, love and lust overcoming common sense – when has it ever been otherwise? - they were secretly married in 1436. It had to be a secret marriage as royal permission would not have been given for someone of Mother’s rank to marry someone of Father’s much lower standing.
Two things come out of this: first, I reiterate that the Wydevilles were not the upstarts everyone thought we were, not a lowly penniless family dragging itself into Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak as many books make out and second: it shows my parents had a love match, they knew there would be repercussions when the news broke and there were, but they went ahead anyway and the dowager Duchess of Bedford, the most desirable widow in Europe, became the wife of Sir Richard Wydeville, Knight. For that I am eternally grateful, or I would not be here and nor would all my siblings. There are those out there who will say ‘good job too’ but let’s face it, if it wasn’t the Wydevilles it would have been some other family who had a remarkably beautiful daughter of marriageable age to thrust in front of a Yorkist king who was queen-less at that time. We got ‘lucky’. It happened to be us. But consider; you could be busy denigrating the name of just about any other aristocratic family of the time whom Edward had visited on his Progress around England. Now there’s food for thought, which other (un)fortunate could have become involved with the Yorks and had their name go down in history as upstarts, popinjays and the like? Anyone would think we didn’t work. Some of us, I would have you know, had to work damned hard for the positions we had, quite apart from walking the silken tightrope I mentioned when talking about life at Court.

Back to my life story. I love family history, don’t you? Even better when it’s your own parents you’re writing about and you know that at least one of them is going to tell their side of the story as well. Fortunate public, getting an overload of Wydeville lives. Well overdue, I am saying as loudly as I can. Time we put our version across ourselves, rather than waiting for sympathetic historians to do it. Sad to say they are somewhat thin on the ground…
It was unfortunate that my parents had neglected to obtain the king’s permission for their marriage because Father was imprisoned for a short time and ordered to pay a fine of £1,000. This was a great deal of money for a newly married knight to find. In the end a deal was struck, Cardinal Beaufort paid the fine in exchange for some of the land held by Mother. This diminished their resources a little but did at least remove the heavy burden.
The scandal surrounding their marriage rumbled on for some time but they ignored the comments and scandal-mongers and settled down to country living. It could be that the ‘love story’ aspect of their relationship appealed to Henry VI as he eventually took Father fully into his favour, granting him the title of Earl Rivers and then, two years later, making him a Knight of the Garter. We were pretty well on our way by then, weren’t we? Edward who?
I did ask Father why he chose the name Rivers. Being a sensible, down to earth type of person as he was/is, the answer was: Rivers is a short name, no one can mangle it, no one is likely to forget it and there were no other ‘Rivers’ around at the time. It seemed a sensible name to take.
I guess it was. I quite liked being called Rivers, when I got to inherit the title. I just didn’t appreciate the way I inherited the title, but Clarence and I have long since resolved that one between us.
Right, I’ve tackled a few false facts about their meeting and their marriage, now to tackle another one.
The Bury was not part of my mother’s dowry.
Why anyone should think it was is beyond me. Those who said it was didn’t have to look very far to find out the truth. The facts are: the land and house at Grafton was granted to the Wydevilles in 1440 by the Earl of Suffolk and his wife. So, it was not part of Mother’s dowry or settlement when she became a widow. Father held land in the area, but not the actual property until this time. Is that so difficult to accept? Not that it matters, it is a comparatively trivial piece of information but it adds up when included with all the other mistakes written about us Wydevilles.
Our home was – a comforting, comfortable place bursting at the seams with children of all ages. Father was often away for long periods of time, but that didn’t seem to stop the babies arriving as a legacy of each of his periods at home. Search the records if you wish, there is no word of either of them going outside their marriage vows and that is something they preached to us children, too. Vows once made were forever. Not all of us kept to that, as I will mention later, at the right time. Before you get any ideas, though, one of them was not me. I adored my wife – then and now – and had/have no intention of straying outside my vows.
Mother’s marriage to the Duke of Bedford was childless. It says much about Father’s virility and Mother’s fertility that in all sixteen children eventually arrived and most of them survived. Being born of parents both handsome and beautiful respectively, we were good-looking and, with Mother’s driving ambition and Father’s contacts, went on to make very good marriages. But that was later. Much later.
A quick sideline: I’ve not said anywhere how I felt about my parents as people, not as aristocrats with this background or that. Behind the titles and the façade of court, they were people who laughed and cried, got sick and did all the things people do.
Father was a proud man. His loyalty to his king was total, whilst it was expedient to be loyal to a Lancastrian, anyway. When the tide turned he became a Yorkist very reluctantly and with much sorrow. His loyalty to his family came second; furthering the family’s fortunes was an important aim at all times, as it was with Mother. He was a good father, ever there to listen, advise, share a jest, to bring down the wrath of Heaven on your head if you stepped out of line but he never, ever, physically punished any of us. The nursemaids and tutors had Father’s permission to do that and they did, regularly. But Father never did. One of his rages was enough to stop any child in their tracks and they never ever repeated the offence. I learned from him that sometimes words are more effective than violence. Not always but often enough to validate his lesson to me. I looked up to him and followed his example throughout my life. His unfortunate end – execution after the battle of Edgecote – was a wound I carried for many years, one I believed would never heal.
Mother was revered. Mother was sharp tongued, impatient, demanding, never still, eyes, fingers and mind in every corner of the Bury, even when she wasn’t there. Letters would be delivered to the house with instructions for each and every one of us. It was as if she had some scrying mirror or ball to look into, to see what each of us was doing and either praise or condemn us for it. It was frightening! We revered her and we adored her, every one of us. She was a powerhouse of energy, a never ending source of advice, wisdom and love. The more I learn of other people’s lives, the more I realise how fortunate we were to have parents like this.
I need to say here that long before King Edward was a force to be reckoned with, long before the sister who would capture his heart – well, his lust anyway – got to be that beautiful, my mother was welcomed at court and was a favourite of Queen Margaret of Anjou. Mother was often at Court, where she was indulged and given jewels, where she had the ear and often the mind of many different people, where schemes were schemed and plans were planned and seeds of ambition sown which would reap us great rewards in the future. I need to say this because there are those who even now think we really did end up in Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak. We were there before that. We were there as a force to be reckoned with long before the Yorks got serious about their claims to the throne, serious enough to do something about it, that is. The Wydeville side might have been considered lowborn, but Mother came from a sufficiently royal background to give her status and standing in court. We were not allowed to forget it. Our tutors and nursemaids lectured us endlessly on our position in the hierarchy of English society and what we had to do to maintain that position.
Which leads me on to another topic. Growing up.

Such Is My Dance by Dorothy Davies

EXTRACT FOR
Such Is My Dance 
(Dorothy Davies)


Prologue:

I was born on the 21st June 1442, had a wonderful childhood, an adventurous and dangerous life, two wonderful wives, lived in the most beautiful homes and held the highest offices in the land. On the 25th June 1483, four days after my 41st birthday, I walked out into the bright summer sunshine to lay my head on a block in order to have it severed from my body. I thought it then; I’ve said it since; that is one messy way to die. Blood everywhere; very undignified. They tell me it’s an execution reserved for aristocrats. I say, bring on the peasantry, hanging would have been better, less gore.
That’s a summary of my life. But, like most people, you’ll want to know more than that; you’ll want to know the whys and wherefores, the whole scenario of 15th century England. So that is what I’ll give you.

England at that time was a divided nation; aristocracy and the rest of the population and never the two shall meet. Peasants, working people, went about their lives as they had always done, farming the land, scraping a living, being born, being buried, no matter who ‘owned’ the land they farmed or the houses in which they gave birth, lived their lives and died. Allegiance to their lord, the owner of the land, came as standard: they paid their rent to his rent collector and answered his call to arms when an array was issued because that was the way of life. If they died in battle for their lord, well, that too was part of life. You went to fight, you expected either to go home rich with looted items or to die, but at least you died a hero’s death even if it was through being hacked to pieces by another Englishman. It seems incomprehensible to me now, at this distance of time, that major battles could be fought with hundreds if not thousands of men in armour or as armed as best they could be with bows, axes and spears, charging into the affray, hacking at their fellow men, bringing them down, suffocating them by fighting on and over their fallen bodies. All this whilst people in the surrounding countryside carried on their lives, not knowing – or caring – that such life and death confrontations were taking place.
Craftsmen pursued their many trades, blacksmiths, carpenters, mercers, cooks and many others, making a living in a time when a living was precarious for the political climate was ever changing and taxes could be imposed or increased at any moment, damaging livelihoods. Guilds were set up to protect the craftsmen as best they could, but even they were powerless before the sweeping changes brought in by a change of monarchy and a new set of laws.
The aristocracy, with their fine clothes, big houses and seemingly immense wealth were a world away from the average land-working people of England. The aristocracy fought each other, sometimes politely, sometimes savagely, for land, positions, money and possessions. Great homes, castles, estates, were sometimes the gift of the reigning monarch, sometimes deeded by family, sometimes acquired by marriage settlements. Catching the king’s attention, being on the winning side in one of the many battles fought across the land or marrying well to gain property and titles was a way of life. Fashion was slavishly followed even if it appeared foolish, for example, the long pointed toes on men’s shoes and the plucked hairlines to create very high foreheads for ladies seem strange even by medieval standards. Yet we went along with it, because it was wise to do so. The one thing you didn’t do was stand out.
A strict hierarchy was in place among aristocrats: the king’s permission had to be sought for a marriage and there were rigid rules about who took precedence over whom at banquets and State occasions. The person appointed to carry the train of a queen or to hold a child at a christening told the rest of the society how high you were in the king or queen’s favour.
Once there, once breathing the heady atmosphere that was the intrigue of court, people were almost prisoners, having to seek the king’s permission to be excused Court to attend to business, for example, or go on a pilgrimage. Life was controlled to a very great degree by the reigning monarch. Families relied on him for their income, for clothing, for shelter and support and in turn he dictated their lives in many respects.
Kings were expected to marry well, with the intention that the marriage should create or reinforce treaties with other countries, cement relationships between monarchs to avoid future problems and bring wealth and power to both sides. Dukes and Earls likewise were expected to marry into money or landed wealth to bring greater prosperity to the family.
Loyalty to one’s lord and one’s liege lord, the king, should have been taken for granted but unfortunately human beings are fickle creatures, led by many different emotions, everything from lust to jealousy. The best-laid plans of many an aristocrat were often overturned in a moment. Executions were considered normal and death was a constant, either through disease or fighting. Battles were a way of gaining glory, if you were on the winning side. Assignations were indiscreet and all but expected if you were a real ‘man-about-Court’.
The ruling monarch at the time this story begins was the devout and mentally unstable Henry VI, a Lancastrian monarch, a man more fitted to the life of seclusion in the cloisters than the ravages of monarchy with all its many problems. These problems were enhanced by his powerful, ambitious, scheming wife, Margaret of Anjou, who held the monarchy together but whose machinations caused many difficulties. There were ambitious claimants to the throne of England; they too added their share to the difficulties besetting the royalty and aristocrats of England.
Taken overall, it was a time of courtly courtesy and conspiracy, power play and paranoia, chivalry and charlatans, knights and knaves, masques and manoeuvrings, dances and death.


Chapter 1 - Early life and family

I came into this uncertain, ever-changing world on the 21st June 1442: born to Richard Wydeville, Knight, and his wife Jacquetta of Luxemburg, dowager Duchess of Bedford, in a manor house in the sleepy village of Grafton in Northamptonshire. It didn’t feel like a sleepy village to me for some years, but then, for some of it I was nothing more than a sleepy baby.
I think of tiny me, wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in my cradle in the corner of the room while the midwife and ladies attended to my mother. I didn’t know I was destined for high rank and power in the medieval world, someone who would become a person demonstrating a startling array of talents (I say this with all modesty) and one who, ultimately, would clash with the person who could – and did – order my death. But that was in the future. Before then I could sleep without fore-knowledge of the great state occasions, the tournaments, the Court celebrations, the countries to be visited and the translating work to come. In many ways it was just as well I did not know that the ‘storms of fortune’ – to quote words from my book - would crash over me. Sometimes I feel it is best that people do not know what lies ahead of them, for surely they would not wish to walk the path of Life if they did.

This book is a chance for me to set the record straight on about a million mistakes which have crept into history books – all right, that might be a small exaggeration, we are not that well known a family – or are we? Let’s make it 500,000 mistakes then, certainly it feels that way when I look at the books and sigh over yet another error, another mis-spelling of my name or another set of dates which don’t match up with a) common sense and b) known facts.
We are Wydevilles. We are known as popinjays, traitors, usurpers and ambitious schemers. The name has come down through your history in a variety of ways and with a variety of descriptions attached to it:
Sympathetic: the hapless beautiful Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV and her tragic sons who were lodged in the Tower and never seen again, creating a mystery which has blighted the reign of Richard III ever since;
Hostile: Wydevilles everywhere, taking over the court, having the king’s ear and confidence, taking honours and positions which others thought were due to them;
Upstarts: power-hungry schemers, plotters and planners, having their hand in the effort to out-flank Richard of Gloucester and get the young Edward V to London for his coronation;
Misunderstood: in truth only obeying Edward IV’s wishes and instructions. Whatever part of Edward IV’s reign anyone reads, a Wydeville will be there. How they are perceived depends on the bias of the historian who is writing at that time.
Our name was written in a variety of ways: Wydvill, Wodeville, Wouldwithe, Oudeville and Wydeville. No one paid much attention to standardising words, names and spellings back then, it was an accepted fact that you could read whatever someone wrote and make sense of it without worrying about such things. We wrote with quills, a slow, laborious, tedious way of writing, not like the speed with which my words are currently being translated into ‘print’ on a bright screen. We just got the words down whichever way we could and if that meant taking a wild guess at the spelling of someone’s name, that’s what happened.
We were initially loyal Lancastrians, poor by the standards of the aristocracy of our time, rich in ambition and endlessly power hungry. There was little room in our lives for anything but the pursuance of power, without it money would be in short supply and many would go without.

We had a proud history. My grandfather, Richard Wydvill, was Esquire to the Body of the Duke of Bedford, a prestigious position that brought honours and some wealth. These positions were highly prized and coveted by many because once among the rich, famous and influential at Court, a courtier had the chance to make contacts, curry favours, carry out favours and use the influence gained to further the family’s cause at all times. From this honoured position it could be seen that the family had some standing in court, or he – Grandfather - would not have been there. Where and how we gained the status does not seem to be recorded anywhere and no one said anything about it, not in my hearing anyway. Maybe an earlier Wydeville bought their way in through favours and chivalric acts of some kind or a fortunate marriage, of the kind which happened later in our family. Luck, fate, that most capricious of things, no doubt had a good deal to do with it.
What I am about to say here is background for what is to come in my life story. It took me a long time to work out the balance of power, the reason for the addiction of court life, the way to handle it. I almost came unstuck a few times, if I can use that expression in a historical book. It was not easy and took some understanding, but this is how a medieval court worked.
A court centres itself round the central figure, be that king, queen or whoever. Around the royal family are the courtiers and servants and theirs is, in truth, a tricky balancing act. Serve the king or queen with a degree of submission but not so much that the others around you notice and move in to depose you in some way. Walk the tightrope of perfect servility whilst ensuring others did not notice your attempts to curry favour. And so the velvet glove was always used: you flattered as you trod heavily on toes or apologised as you shoved someone aside, you smiled as you killed, in such a way that it looked to be the epitome of elegance on your part. Those who did not learn very quickly to be duplicitous were trodden on and thrown out with the rushes when the floors were cleared every Spring.
Court was a seething hotbed of paranoia, gossip, slander and innuendo: the trick was to sieve the information and take from it what which was truthful, ignoring the rest unless it was choice enough to be passed on to someone who would be eager to hear it. Favours for favours and they could be achieved in many ways.
It was a way of life that for some became addictive, whilst others yearned for and longed to escape to the sanctuary of their country homes where they were the lords and ladies and others deferred to them. But even away from court it was necessary to keep up standards, to follow the fashion of the day, to be abreast of the gossip – for which read slander – so you were not caught out when you went back into the hothouse once more. Everyone had their ordinary informants; those who could afford it set up an extensive spy system as well to ensure nothing escaped their attention that would damage their reputation, their wealth or their life.
Now you can begin to see what I mean. It was a very strange way of life.
Court life also meant a good deal of travelling abroad, especially to France. The marriage of John of Bedford to Anne of Burgundy was just one of the great state occasions at which a Wydeville was present: Grandfather Richard Wydvill was part of the duke’s retinue of trusted friends. But there was also work to be done in England; among other honours, he held the position of Governor of the Tower of London. He had plenty to do in the service of the crown.
My father, also called Richard, was so good-looking that I heard it said some declared he was the most handsome man in England. In a time when everyone at court was handsome or beautiful, he had to be outstanding for this accolade to be given to him. We were - and are – a most handsome/good-looking family. I do wonder if some of the seemingly universal dislike of the Wydevilles stems from the jealousy our good looks, natural good manners and ability to make our way in court life generated. Just a thought.
Father too had a place in the hothouse of court, as esquire to the Duke of Bedford. This gave him considerable standing and would have made him a desirable bachelor. A man of many skills and high chivalric values, my father. He was knighted by Henry VI at Leicester in 1426 when he was just 21. He served the duke in France and thus knew, and served, the duke’s second wife, the young, vibrant, beautiful, ambitious Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.
We were referred to as upstarts but my mother, Jacquetta of Luxemburg, was of noble descent; her father was Peter of Luxemburg, Count of St Pol and her mother was Margaret del Baizo, daughter of Francis, Duke of Andria. The addition of Luxemburg to her name indicates she was part of one of the great European families of the time. In an age where lineage, blood and property were everything, the young Jacquetta was a magnet for every bachelor who aspired to further his station in life. It was a known fact in the family that she was just seventeen when she was introduced to the Duke of Bedford, by then an elderly, lonely widower and an alliance was made which led to their marriage. This was a political move: it cemented one treaty between England and Burgundy, whilst upsetting another between England and France. In a time when treaties were regularly made and broken, this was no great surprise. My mother came to England for the first time in 1433 to secure her dower, then returned to France with her ageing husband to arrange his household to suit herself. That is not part of family lore but I know my mother…
My father, being part of the household, no doubt cast covetous eyes in the direction of the new bride, possibly envying the old man his youthful, exuberant wife. At least, that’s the way I see it. I picked much of this up from overhearing the idle chatter of servants. Mother and Father never spoke of the way they met. They were just – there.
The age difference between the duke and his new wife was considerable and, as it was the duke’s household, it is likely that there was not much in the way of entertainment, dances and so on, for his young duchess to enjoy. Politically it was a good marriage, but may not have been so good in terms of romance, courtship and delights. Mother did so like her gifts, her parties, her friends and – I have to say this – her intrigues.
So we have this scenario.
Richard Wydeville, my handsome father, part of the duke’s household.
Jacquetta, my beautiful mother, a beautiful seventeen year old girl, ripe for romance, when she marries the ageing infirm duke.
It is not hard to envision the most handsome man in England taking every opportunity to be in the presence of the Duchess of Bedford, being of service to her, without making it too obvious.
The duke was not a well man and his health quickly declined after the wedding. He lived for a further two years, that’s all. Yes, you can devise all manner of reasons why he did not last very long… and you may well be right. I am not going to speculate, not in print anyway and certainly not when my mother is around to exert her considerable influence on me, even now! After his death in 1435, Mother became one of the most desirable widows in Europe: she was not only beautiful, she was wealthy. Father was part of the escort which brought her to England to settle her late husband’s affairs. I am speculating here, because I do so love a romance, that there would have been opportunities on the journey to the port, then on the seemingly endless sea journey to England, for the two young people to begin to get to know one another. Although Mother had an entourage of ladies, there were surely moments when eye contact could be made and equally it can be imagined her ladies fluttering their eyelashes and fans at the handsome knight, which would have drawn Mother’s attention to him again if she had not already noticed him. He would be more than familiar to her, someone she had perhaps secretly desired but not dared to express any feelings because of her position.
No matter what preceded or indeed happened on this journey to England, the facts are that a courtship began and, love and lust overcoming common sense – when has it ever been otherwise? - they were secretly married in 1436. It had to be a secret marriage as royal permission would not have been given for someone of Mother’s rank to marry someone of Father’s much lower standing.
Two things come out of this: first, I reiterate that the Wydevilles were not the upstarts everyone thought we were, not a lowly penniless family dragging itself into Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak as many books make out and second: it shows my parents had a love match, they knew there would be repercussions when the news broke and there were, but they went ahead anyway and the dowager Duchess of Bedford, the most desirable widow in Europe, became the wife of Sir Richard Wydeville, Knight. For that I am eternally grateful, or I would not be here and nor would all my siblings. There are those out there who will say ‘good job too’ but let’s face it, if it wasn’t the Wydevilles it would have been some other family who had a remarkably beautiful daughter of marriageable age to thrust in front of a Yorkist king who was queen-less at that time. We got ‘lucky’. It happened to be us. But consider; you could be busy denigrating the name of just about any other aristocratic family of the time whom Edward had visited on his Progress around England. Now there’s food for thought, which other (un)fortunate could have become involved with the Yorks and had their name go down in history as upstarts, popinjays and the like? Anyone would think we didn’t work. Some of us, I would have you know, had to work damned hard for the positions we had, quite apart from walking the silken tightrope I mentioned when talking about life at Court.

Back to my life story. I love family history, don’t you? Even better when it’s your own parents you’re writing about and you know that at least one of them is going to tell their side of the story as well. Fortunate public, getting an overload of Wydeville lives. Well overdue, I am saying as loudly as I can. Time we put our version across ourselves, rather than waiting for sympathetic historians to do it. Sad to say they are somewhat thin on the ground…
It was unfortunate that my parents had neglected to obtain the king’s permission for their marriage because Father was imprisoned for a short time and ordered to pay a fine of £1,000. This was a great deal of money for a newly married knight to find. In the end a deal was struck, Cardinal Beaufort paid the fine in exchange for some of the land held by Mother. This diminished their resources a little but did at least remove the heavy burden.
The scandal surrounding their marriage rumbled on for some time but they ignored the comments and scandal-mongers and settled down to country living. It could be that the ‘love story’ aspect of their relationship appealed to Henry VI as he eventually took Father fully into his favour, granting him the title of Earl Rivers and then, two years later, making him a Knight of the Garter. We were pretty well on our way by then, weren’t we? Edward who?
I did ask Father why he chose the name Rivers. Being a sensible, down to earth type of person as he was/is, the answer was: Rivers is a short name, no one can mangle it, no one is likely to forget it and there were no other ‘Rivers’ around at the time. It seemed a sensible name to take.
I guess it was. I quite liked being called Rivers, when I got to inherit the title. I just didn’t appreciate the way I inherited the title, but Clarence and I have long since resolved that one between us.
Right, I’ve tackled a few false facts about their meeting and their marriage, now to tackle another one.
The Bury was not part of my mother’s dowry.
Why anyone should think it was is beyond me. Those who said it was didn’t have to look very far to find out the truth. The facts are: the land and house at Grafton was granted to the Wydevilles in 1440 by the Earl of Suffolk and his wife. So, it was not part of Mother’s dowry or settlement when she became a widow. Father held land in the area, but not the actual property until this time. Is that so difficult to accept? Not that it matters, it is a comparatively trivial piece of information but it adds up when included with all the other mistakes written about us Wydevilles.
Our home was – a comforting, comfortable place bursting at the seams with children of all ages. Father was often away for long periods of time, but that didn’t seem to stop the babies arriving as a legacy of each of his periods at home. Search the records if you wish, there is no word of either of them going outside their marriage vows and that is something they preached to us children, too. Vows once made were forever. Not all of us kept to that, as I will mention later, at the right time. Before you get any ideas, though, one of them was not me. I adored my wife – then and now – and had/have no intention of straying outside my vows.
Mother’s marriage to the Duke of Bedford was childless. It says much about Father’s virility and Mother’s fertility that in all sixteen children eventually arrived and most of them survived. Being born of parents both handsome and beautiful respectively, we were good-looking and, with Mother’s driving ambition and Father’s contacts, went on to make very good marriages. But that was later. Much later.
A quick sideline: I’ve not said anywhere how I felt about my parents as people, not as aristocrats with this background or that. Behind the titles and the façade of court, they were people who laughed and cried, got sick and did all the things people do.
Father was a proud man. His loyalty to his king was total, whilst it was expedient to be loyal to a Lancastrian, anyway. When the tide turned he became a Yorkist very reluctantly and with much sorrow. His loyalty to his family came second; furthering the family’s fortunes was an important aim at all times, as it was with Mother. He was a good father, ever there to listen, advise, share a jest, to bring down the wrath of Heaven on your head if you stepped out of line but he never, ever, physically punished any of us. The nursemaids and tutors had Father’s permission to do that and they did, regularly. But Father never did. One of his rages was enough to stop any child in their tracks and they never ever repeated the offence. I learned from him that sometimes words are more effective than violence. Not always but often enough to validate his lesson to me. I looked up to him and followed his example throughout my life. His unfortunate end – execution after the battle of Edgecote – was a wound I carried for many years, one I believed would never heal.
Mother was revered. Mother was sharp tongued, impatient, demanding, never still, eyes, fingers and mind in every corner of the Bury, even when she wasn’t there. Letters would be delivered to the house with instructions for each and every one of us. It was as if she had some scrying mirror or ball to look into, to see what each of us was doing and either praise or condemn us for it. It was frightening! We revered her and we adored her, every one of us. She was a powerhouse of energy, a never ending source of advice, wisdom and love. The more I learn of other people’s lives, the more I realise how fortunate we were to have parents like this.
I need to say here that long before King Edward was a force to be reckoned with, long before the sister who would capture his heart – well, his lust anyway – got to be that beautiful, my mother was welcomed at court and was a favourite of Queen Margaret of Anjou. Mother was often at Court, where she was indulged and given jewels, where she had the ear and often the mind of many different people, where schemes were schemed and plans were planned and seeds of ambition sown which would reap us great rewards in the future. I need to say this because there are those who even now think we really did end up in Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak. We were there before that. We were there as a force to be reckoned with long before the Yorks got serious about their claims to the throne, serious enough to do something about it, that is. The Wydeville side might have been considered lowborn, but Mother came from a sufficiently royal background to give her status and standing in court. We were not allowed to forget it. Our tutors and nursemaids lectured us endlessly on our position in the hierarchy of English society and what we had to do to maintain that position.
Which leads me on to another topic. Growing up.

EXTRACT FOR
Such Is My Dance 
(Dorothy Davies)


Prologue:

I was born on the 21st June 1442, had a wonderful childhood, an adventurous and dangerous life, two wonderful wives, lived in the most beautiful homes and held the highest offices in the land. On the 25th June 1483, four days after my 41st birthday, I walked out into the bright summer sunshine to lay my head on a block in order to have it severed from my body. I thought it then; I’ve said it since; that is one messy way to die. Blood everywhere; very undignified. They tell me it’s an execution reserved for aristocrats. I say, bring on the peasantry, hanging would have been better, less gore.
That’s a summary of my life. But, like most people, you’ll want to know more than that; you’ll want to know the whys and wherefores, the whole scenario of 15th century England. So that is what I’ll give you.

England at that time was a divided nation; aristocracy and the rest of the population and never the two shall meet. Peasants, working people, went about their lives as they had always done, farming the land, scraping a living, being born, being buried, no matter who ‘owned’ the land they farmed or the houses in which they gave birth, lived their lives and died. Allegiance to their lord, the owner of the land, came as standard: they paid their rent to his rent collector and answered his call to arms when an array was issued because that was the way of life. If they died in battle for their lord, well, that too was part of life. You went to fight, you expected either to go home rich with looted items or to die, but at least you died a hero’s death even if it was through being hacked to pieces by another Englishman. It seems incomprehensible to me now, at this distance of time, that major battles could be fought with hundreds if not thousands of men in armour or as armed as best they could be with bows, axes and spears, charging into the affray, hacking at their fellow men, bringing them down, suffocating them by fighting on and over their fallen bodies. All this whilst people in the surrounding countryside carried on their lives, not knowing – or caring – that such life and death confrontations were taking place.
Craftsmen pursued their many trades, blacksmiths, carpenters, mercers, cooks and many others, making a living in a time when a living was precarious for the political climate was ever changing and taxes could be imposed or increased at any moment, damaging livelihoods. Guilds were set up to protect the craftsmen as best they could, but even they were powerless before the sweeping changes brought in by a change of monarchy and a new set of laws.
The aristocracy, with their fine clothes, big houses and seemingly immense wealth were a world away from the average land-working people of England. The aristocracy fought each other, sometimes politely, sometimes savagely, for land, positions, money and possessions. Great homes, castles, estates, were sometimes the gift of the reigning monarch, sometimes deeded by family, sometimes acquired by marriage settlements. Catching the king’s attention, being on the winning side in one of the many battles fought across the land or marrying well to gain property and titles was a way of life. Fashion was slavishly followed even if it appeared foolish, for example, the long pointed toes on men’s shoes and the plucked hairlines to create very high foreheads for ladies seem strange even by medieval standards. Yet we went along with it, because it was wise to do so. The one thing you didn’t do was stand out.
A strict hierarchy was in place among aristocrats: the king’s permission had to be sought for a marriage and there were rigid rules about who took precedence over whom at banquets and State occasions. The person appointed to carry the train of a queen or to hold a child at a christening told the rest of the society how high you were in the king or queen’s favour.
Once there, once breathing the heady atmosphere that was the intrigue of court, people were almost prisoners, having to seek the king’s permission to be excused Court to attend to business, for example, or go on a pilgrimage. Life was controlled to a very great degree by the reigning monarch. Families relied on him for their income, for clothing, for shelter and support and in turn he dictated their lives in many respects.
Kings were expected to marry well, with the intention that the marriage should create or reinforce treaties with other countries, cement relationships between monarchs to avoid future problems and bring wealth and power to both sides. Dukes and Earls likewise were expected to marry into money or landed wealth to bring greater prosperity to the family.
Loyalty to one’s lord and one’s liege lord, the king, should have been taken for granted but unfortunately human beings are fickle creatures, led by many different emotions, everything from lust to jealousy. The best-laid plans of many an aristocrat were often overturned in a moment. Executions were considered normal and death was a constant, either through disease or fighting. Battles were a way of gaining glory, if you were on the winning side. Assignations were indiscreet and all but expected if you were a real ‘man-about-Court’.
The ruling monarch at the time this story begins was the devout and mentally unstable Henry VI, a Lancastrian monarch, a man more fitted to the life of seclusion in the cloisters than the ravages of monarchy with all its many problems. These problems were enhanced by his powerful, ambitious, scheming wife, Margaret of Anjou, who held the monarchy together but whose machinations caused many difficulties. There were ambitious claimants to the throne of England; they too added their share to the difficulties besetting the royalty and aristocrats of England.
Taken overall, it was a time of courtly courtesy and conspiracy, power play and paranoia, chivalry and charlatans, knights and knaves, masques and manoeuvrings, dances and death.


Chapter 1 - Early life and family

I came into this uncertain, ever-changing world on the 21st June 1442: born to Richard Wydeville, Knight, and his wife Jacquetta of Luxemburg, dowager Duchess of Bedford, in a manor house in the sleepy village of Grafton in Northamptonshire. It didn’t feel like a sleepy village to me for some years, but then, for some of it I was nothing more than a sleepy baby.
I think of tiny me, wrapped in swaddling bands and laid in my cradle in the corner of the room while the midwife and ladies attended to my mother. I didn’t know I was destined for high rank and power in the medieval world, someone who would become a person demonstrating a startling array of talents (I say this with all modesty) and one who, ultimately, would clash with the person who could – and did – order my death. But that was in the future. Before then I could sleep without fore-knowledge of the great state occasions, the tournaments, the Court celebrations, the countries to be visited and the translating work to come. In many ways it was just as well I did not know that the ‘storms of fortune’ – to quote words from my book - would crash over me. Sometimes I feel it is best that people do not know what lies ahead of them, for surely they would not wish to walk the path of Life if they did.

This book is a chance for me to set the record straight on about a million mistakes which have crept into history books – all right, that might be a small exaggeration, we are not that well known a family – or are we? Let’s make it 500,000 mistakes then, certainly it feels that way when I look at the books and sigh over yet another error, another mis-spelling of my name or another set of dates which don’t match up with a) common sense and b) known facts.
We are Wydevilles. We are known as popinjays, traitors, usurpers and ambitious schemers. The name has come down through your history in a variety of ways and with a variety of descriptions attached to it:
Sympathetic: the hapless beautiful Elizabeth, Queen to Edward IV and her tragic sons who were lodged in the Tower and never seen again, creating a mystery which has blighted the reign of Richard III ever since;
Hostile: Wydevilles everywhere, taking over the court, having the king’s ear and confidence, taking honours and positions which others thought were due to them;
Upstarts: power-hungry schemers, plotters and planners, having their hand in the effort to out-flank Richard of Gloucester and get the young Edward V to London for his coronation;
Misunderstood: in truth only obeying Edward IV’s wishes and instructions. Whatever part of Edward IV’s reign anyone reads, a Wydeville will be there. How they are perceived depends on the bias of the historian who is writing at that time.
Our name was written in a variety of ways: Wydvill, Wodeville, Wouldwithe, Oudeville and Wydeville. No one paid much attention to standardising words, names and spellings back then, it was an accepted fact that you could read whatever someone wrote and make sense of it without worrying about such things. We wrote with quills, a slow, laborious, tedious way of writing, not like the speed with which my words are currently being translated into ‘print’ on a bright screen. We just got the words down whichever way we could and if that meant taking a wild guess at the spelling of someone’s name, that’s what happened.
We were initially loyal Lancastrians, poor by the standards of the aristocracy of our time, rich in ambition and endlessly power hungry. There was little room in our lives for anything but the pursuance of power, without it money would be in short supply and many would go without.

We had a proud history. My grandfather, Richard Wydvill, was Esquire to the Body of the Duke of Bedford, a prestigious position that brought honours and some wealth. These positions were highly prized and coveted by many because once among the rich, famous and influential at Court, a courtier had the chance to make contacts, curry favours, carry out favours and use the influence gained to further the family’s cause at all times. From this honoured position it could be seen that the family had some standing in court, or he – Grandfather - would not have been there. Where and how we gained the status does not seem to be recorded anywhere and no one said anything about it, not in my hearing anyway. Maybe an earlier Wydeville bought their way in through favours and chivalric acts of some kind or a fortunate marriage, of the kind which happened later in our family. Luck, fate, that most capricious of things, no doubt had a good deal to do with it.
What I am about to say here is background for what is to come in my life story. It took me a long time to work out the balance of power, the reason for the addiction of court life, the way to handle it. I almost came unstuck a few times, if I can use that expression in a historical book. It was not easy and took some understanding, but this is how a medieval court worked.
A court centres itself round the central figure, be that king, queen or whoever. Around the royal family are the courtiers and servants and theirs is, in truth, a tricky balancing act. Serve the king or queen with a degree of submission but not so much that the others around you notice and move in to depose you in some way. Walk the tightrope of perfect servility whilst ensuring others did not notice your attempts to curry favour. And so the velvet glove was always used: you flattered as you trod heavily on toes or apologised as you shoved someone aside, you smiled as you killed, in such a way that it looked to be the epitome of elegance on your part. Those who did not learn very quickly to be duplicitous were trodden on and thrown out with the rushes when the floors were cleared every Spring.
Court was a seething hotbed of paranoia, gossip, slander and innuendo: the trick was to sieve the information and take from it what which was truthful, ignoring the rest unless it was choice enough to be passed on to someone who would be eager to hear it. Favours for favours and they could be achieved in many ways.
It was a way of life that for some became addictive, whilst others yearned for and longed to escape to the sanctuary of their country homes where they were the lords and ladies and others deferred to them. But even away from court it was necessary to keep up standards, to follow the fashion of the day, to be abreast of the gossip – for which read slander – so you were not caught out when you went back into the hothouse once more. Everyone had their ordinary informants; those who could afford it set up an extensive spy system as well to ensure nothing escaped their attention that would damage their reputation, their wealth or their life.
Now you can begin to see what I mean. It was a very strange way of life.
Court life also meant a good deal of travelling abroad, especially to France. The marriage of John of Bedford to Anne of Burgundy was just one of the great state occasions at which a Wydeville was present: Grandfather Richard Wydvill was part of the duke’s retinue of trusted friends. But there was also work to be done in England; among other honours, he held the position of Governor of the Tower of London. He had plenty to do in the service of the crown.
My father, also called Richard, was so good-looking that I heard it said some declared he was the most handsome man in England. In a time when everyone at court was handsome or beautiful, he had to be outstanding for this accolade to be given to him. We were - and are – a most handsome/good-looking family. I do wonder if some of the seemingly universal dislike of the Wydevilles stems from the jealousy our good looks, natural good manners and ability to make our way in court life generated. Just a thought.
Father too had a place in the hothouse of court, as esquire to the Duke of Bedford. This gave him considerable standing and would have made him a desirable bachelor. A man of many skills and high chivalric values, my father. He was knighted by Henry VI at Leicester in 1426 when he was just 21. He served the duke in France and thus knew, and served, the duke’s second wife, the young, vibrant, beautiful, ambitious Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.
We were referred to as upstarts but my mother, Jacquetta of Luxemburg, was of noble descent; her father was Peter of Luxemburg, Count of St Pol and her mother was Margaret del Baizo, daughter of Francis, Duke of Andria. The addition of Luxemburg to her name indicates she was part of one of the great European families of the time. In an age where lineage, blood and property were everything, the young Jacquetta was a magnet for every bachelor who aspired to further his station in life. It was a known fact in the family that she was just seventeen when she was introduced to the Duke of Bedford, by then an elderly, lonely widower and an alliance was made which led to their marriage. This was a political move: it cemented one treaty between England and Burgundy, whilst upsetting another between England and France. In a time when treaties were regularly made and broken, this was no great surprise. My mother came to England for the first time in 1433 to secure her dower, then returned to France with her ageing husband to arrange his household to suit herself. That is not part of family lore but I know my mother…
My father, being part of the household, no doubt cast covetous eyes in the direction of the new bride, possibly envying the old man his youthful, exuberant wife. At least, that’s the way I see it. I picked much of this up from overhearing the idle chatter of servants. Mother and Father never spoke of the way they met. They were just – there.
The age difference between the duke and his new wife was considerable and, as it was the duke’s household, it is likely that there was not much in the way of entertainment, dances and so on, for his young duchess to enjoy. Politically it was a good marriage, but may not have been so good in terms of romance, courtship and delights. Mother did so like her gifts, her parties, her friends and – I have to say this – her intrigues.
So we have this scenario.
Richard Wydeville, my handsome father, part of the duke’s household.
Jacquetta, my beautiful mother, a beautiful seventeen year old girl, ripe for romance, when she marries the ageing infirm duke.
It is not hard to envision the most handsome man in England taking every opportunity to be in the presence of the Duchess of Bedford, being of service to her, without making it too obvious.
The duke was not a well man and his health quickly declined after the wedding. He lived for a further two years, that’s all. Yes, you can devise all manner of reasons why he did not last very long… and you may well be right. I am not going to speculate, not in print anyway and certainly not when my mother is around to exert her considerable influence on me, even now! After his death in 1435, Mother became one of the most desirable widows in Europe: she was not only beautiful, she was wealthy. Father was part of the escort which brought her to England to settle her late husband’s affairs. I am speculating here, because I do so love a romance, that there would have been opportunities on the journey to the port, then on the seemingly endless sea journey to England, for the two young people to begin to get to know one another. Although Mother had an entourage of ladies, there were surely moments when eye contact could be made and equally it can be imagined her ladies fluttering their eyelashes and fans at the handsome knight, which would have drawn Mother’s attention to him again if she had not already noticed him. He would be more than familiar to her, someone she had perhaps secretly desired but not dared to express any feelings because of her position.
No matter what preceded or indeed happened on this journey to England, the facts are that a courtship began and, love and lust overcoming common sense – when has it ever been otherwise? - they were secretly married in 1436. It had to be a secret marriage as royal permission would not have been given for someone of Mother’s rank to marry someone of Father’s much lower standing.
Two things come out of this: first, I reiterate that the Wydevilles were not the upstarts everyone thought we were, not a lowly penniless family dragging itself into Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak as many books make out and second: it shows my parents had a love match, they knew there would be repercussions when the news broke and there were, but they went ahead anyway and the dowager Duchess of Bedford, the most desirable widow in Europe, became the wife of Sir Richard Wydeville, Knight. For that I am eternally grateful, or I would not be here and nor would all my siblings. There are those out there who will say ‘good job too’ but let’s face it, if it wasn’t the Wydevilles it would have been some other family who had a remarkably beautiful daughter of marriageable age to thrust in front of a Yorkist king who was queen-less at that time. We got ‘lucky’. It happened to be us. But consider; you could be busy denigrating the name of just about any other aristocratic family of the time whom Edward had visited on his Progress around England. Now there’s food for thought, which other (un)fortunate could have become involved with the Yorks and had their name go down in history as upstarts, popinjays and the like? Anyone would think we didn’t work. Some of us, I would have you know, had to work damned hard for the positions we had, quite apart from walking the silken tightrope I mentioned when talking about life at Court.

Back to my life story. I love family history, don’t you? Even better when it’s your own parents you’re writing about and you know that at least one of them is going to tell their side of the story as well. Fortunate public, getting an overload of Wydeville lives. Well overdue, I am saying as loudly as I can. Time we put our version across ourselves, rather than waiting for sympathetic historians to do it. Sad to say they are somewhat thin on the ground…
It was unfortunate that my parents had neglected to obtain the king’s permission for their marriage because Father was imprisoned for a short time and ordered to pay a fine of £1,000. This was a great deal of money for a newly married knight to find. In the end a deal was struck, Cardinal Beaufort paid the fine in exchange for some of the land held by Mother. This diminished their resources a little but did at least remove the heavy burden.
The scandal surrounding their marriage rumbled on for some time but they ignored the comments and scandal-mongers and settled down to country living. It could be that the ‘love story’ aspect of their relationship appealed to Henry VI as he eventually took Father fully into his favour, granting him the title of Earl Rivers and then, two years later, making him a Knight of the Garter. We were pretty well on our way by then, weren’t we? Edward who?
I did ask Father why he chose the name Rivers. Being a sensible, down to earth type of person as he was/is, the answer was: Rivers is a short name, no one can mangle it, no one is likely to forget it and there were no other ‘Rivers’ around at the time. It seemed a sensible name to take.
I guess it was. I quite liked being called Rivers, when I got to inherit the title. I just didn’t appreciate the way I inherited the title, but Clarence and I have long since resolved that one between us.
Right, I’ve tackled a few false facts about their meeting and their marriage, now to tackle another one.
The Bury was not part of my mother’s dowry.
Why anyone should think it was is beyond me. Those who said it was didn’t have to look very far to find out the truth. The facts are: the land and house at Grafton was granted to the Wydevilles in 1440 by the Earl of Suffolk and his wife. So, it was not part of Mother’s dowry or settlement when she became a widow. Father held land in the area, but not the actual property until this time. Is that so difficult to accept? Not that it matters, it is a comparatively trivial piece of information but it adds up when included with all the other mistakes written about us Wydevilles.
Our home was – a comforting, comfortable place bursting at the seams with children of all ages. Father was often away for long periods of time, but that didn’t seem to stop the babies arriving as a legacy of each of his periods at home. Search the records if you wish, there is no word of either of them going outside their marriage vows and that is something they preached to us children, too. Vows once made were forever. Not all of us kept to that, as I will mention later, at the right time. Before you get any ideas, though, one of them was not me. I adored my wife – then and now – and had/have no intention of straying outside my vows.
Mother’s marriage to the Duke of Bedford was childless. It says much about Father’s virility and Mother’s fertility that in all sixteen children eventually arrived and most of them survived. Being born of parents both handsome and beautiful respectively, we were good-looking and, with Mother’s driving ambition and Father’s contacts, went on to make very good marriages. But that was later. Much later.
A quick sideline: I’ve not said anywhere how I felt about my parents as people, not as aristocrats with this background or that. Behind the titles and the façade of court, they were people who laughed and cried, got sick and did all the things people do.
Father was a proud man. His loyalty to his king was total, whilst it was expedient to be loyal to a Lancastrian, anyway. When the tide turned he became a Yorkist very reluctantly and with much sorrow. His loyalty to his family came second; furthering the family’s fortunes was an important aim at all times, as it was with Mother. He was a good father, ever there to listen, advise, share a jest, to bring down the wrath of Heaven on your head if you stepped out of line but he never, ever, physically punished any of us. The nursemaids and tutors had Father’s permission to do that and they did, regularly. But Father never did. One of his rages was enough to stop any child in their tracks and they never ever repeated the offence. I learned from him that sometimes words are more effective than violence. Not always but often enough to validate his lesson to me. I looked up to him and followed his example throughout my life. His unfortunate end – execution after the battle of Edgecote – was a wound I carried for many years, one I believed would never heal.
Mother was revered. Mother was sharp tongued, impatient, demanding, never still, eyes, fingers and mind in every corner of the Bury, even when she wasn’t there. Letters would be delivered to the house with instructions for each and every one of us. It was as if she had some scrying mirror or ball to look into, to see what each of us was doing and either praise or condemn us for it. It was frightening! We revered her and we adored her, every one of us. She was a powerhouse of energy, a never ending source of advice, wisdom and love. The more I learn of other people’s lives, the more I realise how fortunate we were to have parents like this.
I need to say here that long before King Edward was a force to be reckoned with, long before the sister who would capture his heart – well, his lust anyway – got to be that beautiful, my mother was welcomed at court and was a favourite of Queen Margaret of Anjou. Mother was often at Court, where she was indulged and given jewels, where she had the ear and often the mind of many different people, where schemes were schemed and plans were planned and seeds of ambition sown which would reap us great rewards in the future. I need to say this because there are those who even now think we really did end up in Court by holding on to Edward’s cloak. We were there before that. We were there as a force to be reckoned with long before the Yorks got serious about their claims to the throne, serious enough to do something about it, that is. The Wydeville side might have been considered lowborn, but Mother came from a sufficiently royal background to give her status and standing in court. We were not allowed to forget it. Our tutors and nursemaids lectured us endlessly on our position in the hierarchy of English society and what we had to do to maintain that position.
Which leads me on to another topic. Growing up.

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