Two letters from the earl of Warwick and a brief discussion

Posted: July 21, 2010 in Earl of Warwick, Letters, Richard Nevill

A couple of posts ago, I shared with you a letter written by George Nevill, archbishop of York to the papal legate, Coppini. This letter was written after a series of battles, some of which went well for the Yorkists and some of which when horrifically wrong. In the space of three months, there were five military engagements; three (possibly four if Hall is correct) members of the Nevill family killed, along with others with close connections; one was captured; two battles lost, a skirmish and two battles won; and three heads of loved ones had only recently been removed from public display. George’s letter, though of course showing the situation in the best possible light, is quite openly emotional. The letters I want to share and discuss here, from the earl of Warwick to Pope Pius II and Francesco Sforza, duke of Milan, are shorter, less emotionally honest but no less optimistic. They weren’t written to express the earl’s grief, but his assurances that he had the situation in England – and England itself – under control.

During this time of confusion, a whole flurry of letters crossed Europe, some trying to make sense of the situation in England, some attempting to win support. This first, written on 11 January 1461 (just 11 days after the death of his father), is a valiant attempt at presenting a united and confident front to the Pope in the hope of gaining his support and imprimatur.

In her Lady of the Roses, Sandra Worth has Isobel Ingoldisthorpe, John Nevill’s wife, comment critically on the wording of these letters, which clearly shows that their intent was either genuinely or deliberately misunderstood by the author. The use of the word kinsmen in the first doesn’t, in my view, distance Warwick from the deaths, but is used to encompass the whole gamut of relationships he had with these men – son, brother, nephew, cousin and brother-in-law.

Both these letters are from the Venice papers.

From Richard Nevill Earl of Warwick to Pope Pius II

Your Holiness must not be troubled if you have heard of the events in England, and of the destruction of some of my kinsmen in the battle against our enemies. With the assistance of God and of the King, who is excellently disposed, all will end well. We shall obtain either a fair and sure peace or victory, especially if you confer the long-expected promotion of your Legate. The people will then see that our adversaries, who daily spread lying reports, are false and not true men, for they scorn your authority and the Legate’s, and say the latter has no power and is no legate, adding marvellous falsehoods to make him unpopular, to the detriment of the Church and the King. If, according to your former letters, you value my allegiance and the allegiance of those who are conscientiously aiding the King and the Legate (in conformity with the statement of Dom Antonio della Torre, his Majesty’s ambassador), it will be necessary so to deal with us and the Legate that all may know such to be the fact, and that he may bear the [legantine] cross which you sent him, without envy and opposition on account of our two Archbishops and Primates, as Dom Antionio, the bearer can inform you. Be pleased to give him full credence, and do not desert me and the others you formerly received as sons, for eventually you will see us end well and devoutly. The King sends his recommendations and desires certain concessions, which Antonio will declare.

London 11 Jan 1461

(signed) Your said Holiness’s most devoted son and subject, R Earl of Warwick

I think the phrase ‘destruction of some of my kinsmen’ may raise an eyebrow or two when first read. I can understand that, he’s talking about (amongst others) his father and brother. But the purpose of the letter is not to express personal grief. We can’t know how badly that affected him, though unless one is prepared to see him as a cold hearted monster, I think it has to be assumed that he did in fact grieve. He wasn’t in a position, however, to wallow in grief, as he had a cause to salvage and a country to run. In fact, the phrase actually minimises the impact of the deaths, not to imply that any of the dead were inconsequential, but to suggest that those who were still alive were more than capable of getting the job done.  In a very short letter, Warwick mentions the king (in this case still Henry VI) four times, this cannot be accidental, and the final sentence referencing the king suggests strongly that Warwick is still very much in his confidence.

The second letter, to the duke of Milan, is even shorter.

Richard Nevill Earl of Warwick to Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan

Probably you have already heard from the Legate certain news from these parts with regret, from the good will you bear us all and our state. You may notwithstanding be of good cheer, for we hope doubtless to remedy everything, especially if the Legate be promoted by the Pope, as we trust. This would confound the malice of our enemies, who from lack of other means circulate among the people a thousand rogueries and lies against the authority of the Pope and the Legate. On this and other business we are again sending Dom Antonio della Torre to the Pope and to you, and beg credence for him. The promotion of the Legate is indispensable, if the Pope mean to aid the state of the Church and our just cause. We are devoted to the Pope and to the commonweal of his Majesty and the realm, which our adversaries endeavour to destroy. They will be prevented doing so if the expected favour be granted by the Pope.

London, 11 Jan 1461

Your Excellency’s son and kinsman, Richard Nevill, Earl of Warwick

To me, these are both clearly business letters and one wouldn’t necessarily expect them to contain news of a personal nature. Authors who use these letters to bolster a point of view that Warwick was somehow coldhearted, uncaring and mercenary are guilty of dishonesty and (at the very least) misunderstanding his position and the dire need he and his party had for outside support and to promote the appearance of internal cohesion.

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for sharing these letters with us as well as the other one before. I think they are a great and valuable insight into the character of Richard Neville and is a shame we don’t have letters to and from all the big players during the WoR – it would all have been so much easier if they had just invented e-mail! It is also interesting from a reader’s perspective to see how authors will interpret things like personal communications. For my part, I have to agree with yours because of the chaos that was reigning in England at the time and I think any of the Neville men that had recently lost their lives would have done something similar if they had been left in Warwick’s position – it’s not cold and callous, but one could argue a necessary evil.

  2. anevillfeast says:

    Thanks, Elizabeth. I feel strongly about this and I’m glad that you agree. The funeral at Bisham for Salisbury, Thomas and the countess in 1462 gives a very clear indication to me just how much Warwick loved his family and how much he honoured those who died. But even that is used as ammunition against him by the ‘extravagant Warwick’ camp! Hardly any of Warwick’s letter survive – it’d be great to have a few more.

  3. SuH says:

    I find it amazing that Warwick and Henry VI were still in each others confidence after Wakefield. Towton was only a couple of months away. afterall.

    I think mediaeval people in general put up a ‘business as usual’ front when personal tragedies strike; private grief is exactly that: private. Death is part of life to the mediaeval mind. Isobel Ingoldsthorpe knew that too – she married again only a year after John’s death.

  4. anevillfeast says:

    Thanks Su. Warwick, I think, could have gone on acting in Henry’s name till the cows came home, had he not lost him at St Albans.

    The point about ‘business as usual’ is missed by so many authors who want people to fall to pieces, when mostly they did what they had to do, rolled up their sleeves and got on with it. Which isn’t to say they didn’t feel grief – private, as you say. Worth has Cecily and Alice falling to the knees and wailing at the news of Wakefield, which image Cecily’s ‘I have to get my boys the hell out of here’ actions don’t uphold. Clarence took part in an all night vigil after Isobel died then almost immediately began to think about remarriage, and it would seem he was, at the very least, extremely fond of her. Both Maud Stanhope and Katheryn Nevill were remarried about a year after their husbands’ deaths as well. Those who remained widows for life (eg Alice Fitzhugh, Cecily Nevill) may have done so for many reasons, including stipulations in their husbands’ wills, a simple wish to remain independent or a sense that there was no-one out there who could replace their husbands. Goodness! I think there’s a post in this somewhere!

  5. Elizabeth says:

    SuH makes an interesting point about grief being private, which doesn’t seem to be the case in our (American, at least, not entirely sure on other cultures) culture as whenever a media-grabbing event occurs, people are expected to give interviews and live out their tragedies in the public eye. I think it has just led some to believe that unless there is a great show of grief, then there must not be great feeling involved. Once again, it becomes a matter of placing our society’s conventions on bygone ones.

  6. anevillfeast says:

    I couldn’t agree more, Elizabeth!

    • trish wilson says:

      As you’ve probably realised my research is quite thorough. What I’ve picked up on the Nevilles both at home and abroad hardly suggests that they were in a position to cast stones at any anyone least of all the Wydevilles. Indeed have you picked up on the Neville-Wydeville feud that was happening long before E4 became king and as a result of that raid on the Hanseatic fleet turned downright explosive?

      I am no more an apologist for the Wydevilles than I am for anyone else but I am getting concerned about a number of failings in respect of historians never mind historical novelists, one of which is a lack of thorough research. Indeed is it fair to blame the novelists if the historians aren’t up to their job?

      For the record other failings include lack of impartiality, lack of objectivity, lack of clarity, lack of curiosity – if the dog failed to bark in the night find out why – as it is I’m both amazed and appalled how many historians haven’t even noticed that the dog didn’t bark – lack of logic particularly in the matter of what happened to the Princes in the Tower no longer a mystery to me – and last but not least a lack of date awareness the ability to pick on two events happening at the same time or around the same time and make a connection as in the case of Princes in the Tower.

      Taking things out of context? That’s the least of the problems!

      • anevillfeast says:

        Thanks, Trish. I actually haven’t got a position on your research – which, I’m sure, is at least as thorough as mine – because I haven’t seen or read anything yet that’s resulted from it! However, I think that taking things out of context – not attempting to develop an understanding of the time they’re writing about or the people – is one of the major failings of a number of historical novelists. I’ve read too many remarks from readers of HF who seem to feel that they get more history from fiction than they did from school, and who also tell those of us who care about authenticity and accuracy to ‘stick to non-fiction’. I think any of us who aspires to writing HF owes it not only to potential readers but the characters we’re writing about to try our best to understand them and their time and not make stuff up that suits our agenda. I don’t (nor have I ever) hide my interest, fascination, admiration and fondness for the Nevills (all of them, some more than others) but I also don’t feel that I need to cast them in some kind of magical holy light in order to tell my story. Too many other writers (from what I can see) do seem to feel this need when it comes to their favoured and favourite characters.

        To be honest, I don’t know what you’re referring to and, as you seem reluctant to say anything more about it, I’m not sure what relevance it might have! However, I’m always pleased to hear from you, Trish.

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