The anniversary of the execution of William Catesby would seem to be a good enough time as any to review this rather odd book. I’m glad I have it in my collection for the appendices alone, which include modernised versions of various letters and documents as well as Catesby’s will, but as a useful and informative text it falls down spectacularly.
The author, Peter Hancock, is not an historian by profession but (like a great many of us) has undertaken a good deal of research over the years and is clearly identified as a ‘Ricardian’. Now, if I was faced with the stark choice of choosing which category I belonged to – Ricardian or non-Ricardian – I’d put myself in the former group, but we are not all of a feather, which makes life interesting. On the continuum ‘Skeptical <–> Immovable’, I suspect that we are at opposite ends.
This book seems to be driven, at least in part, by a need to explain and justify that most inexplicable act – the summary execution of William Hastings. It just doesn’t fit in with the view of those at the Immovable end of the continuum. There can be no denying that it occurred, nor that it was ordered (if not orchestrated) by Richard III, but how convenient would it be to find that the real instigator was someone else? That’s just what Hancock has managed to do, and he has taken the line of least resistance and blamed that utterly blameworthy individual, the rather shadowy and perhaps morally challenged William Catesby.
First of all, I have to say that this is, superficially at least, a well researched and well written book. The deeper one goes, however, the more it seems that the material has been very carefully collected and massaged to support the author’s theory.
He bases his speculation on four things: the Eleanor Butler pre-contract; the connections between the Catesbys and the Talbots; Catesby’s rapid acquisition, after the execution, of Hastings’ property and lands; and his equally rapid rise in the court of Richard III. Into this Hancock weaves a purported deal between Catesby and Thomas Stanley, involving the sparing of Richard’s Bosworth hostage, lord George Strange (son of Stanley and Richard’s cousin Alianor Nevill) as well as an explanation for Catesby’s eventual execution, despite the agreement. It all turns into quite a vast conspiracy including, at the very end, Henry Tudor. While I think a deal between Stanley and Catesby isn’t beyond the realms of possibility (and there is a passage in Catesby’s will that would seem to point to one), the construction of this web of intrigue and conspiracy weighs rather heavily and is an unnecessarily complex and unwieldy explanation for the inexplicable. I didn’t know the reason for Hastings’ execution when I finished this book any more than I had before I began it. It doesn’t work for me anymore than the received view that Hastings was plotting with the Wydevilles.
I don’t want to go into detail about Hancock’s ‘findings’ except to say that the whole construction rests on a very speculative and shaky foundation – the existence of documentary proof of the pre-contract which is not only in Catesby’s possession but is something that both Hastings and Henry Tudor are aware exists.
William Catesby has enough to answer for, I think, and serves in this book as a convenient scapegoat for what can only be described as an unjust act. I doubt there are many who’d leap to his defence, so I find that it’s down to me to do so. He was an opportunist with few scruples; he rose high and fast in the service of Richard III and he wasn’t above doing a deal with a man with even fewer scruples than he had himself. He certainly didn’t hesitate to grab as much of Hastings’ property as he could get his hands on, but to suggest that he deliberately set out to destroy the man and, incidentally, set the wheels in motion for the duke of Gloucester’s seizure of the throne, is a step too far. Richard III, as duke and king, made decisions both wise and (appallingly) unwise. Catesby might have been behind him (almost) every step of the way, but to use him to exonerate Richard on shaky and cobbled together evidence is disingenuous and, in its way, as heinous as the ‘Tudor propaganda’ so many of us have been trying to counter over the years.
Immovable Ricardians will love this book, I think. More skeptical ones, like me, need a bit more than speculation, imagination and a convenient scapegoat.