A curious thing… the final moments of John Nevill

Posted: April 18, 2011 in Barnet, John Nevill

This was going to be a more general post about John Nevill, until Susan Higginbotham reminded me of a sentence in Warkworth’s Chronicle that seems to have been oddly (and quite definitively) interpreted in one particular way, which has spread through the pages of historical fiction like a meme (or a virus?). Thinking about this last night got me to thinking about what other interpretations could be made of it, how it fit in with what else we know (or at least, what else is in the sources), and how the current widespread interpretation is used to reinforce the seemingly entrenched view of the three surviving Nevill brothers as literary archetypes. Which they weren’t – they were Actual People Who Actually Lived.

Most of us who write about the Wars of the Roses have a bias. Even serious historians, who can claim to be more neutral than most, probably aren’t entirely neutral. So, given that there are recognised to be two sides – York and Lancaster – and as the Nevills worked for both, it’s not difficult to see how they often end up caught in a cleft stick, so to speak. Yorkists don’t like them because they changed sides, Lancastrians don’t like them because they inflicted great harm on their cause – before changing sides. When I say “them”, I really should correct myself – they don’t like Warwick or the archbishop of York. Everyone just loves John! It’s almost as if the countess of Salisbury had two sons only: Thomas, the tragic young warrior who died at Wakefield, and a fully rounded, three dimensional son who was, tragically, at a very young age hit with some kind of alien raygun and split into three: Richard, who was All Things Bad; John, who was All Things Good; and poor George who kind of got the leftover weaselly bits*. No-one’s shocked when Richard changes sides, whatever George does is slotted nicely into his ‘self-seeking’ ‘cowardly’ persona, but great efforts must be made to explain John’s actions. Torn Between Loyalties is a favourite, Montagu wearing the ‘colours of York’ under his armour a meme that just refuses to die, and that brings us very nicely back to Warkworth.

And on Ester day in the mornynge, the xiij day of Apryl, ryght erly, eche of them came uppone the othere; and ther was suche a grete myste, that nether of them myght see othere perfitely; ther thei faught from iiij of the clokke in the mornynge unto x of the clokke the fore-none. And dyverse tymes the Erle of Warwyke party hade the victory, and supposede that they hade wonne the felde. But it happened so, that the Erle of Oxenfordes men hade uppon them ther lordes lyvery, bothe before and behynde, which was a sterre with stremys, wiche [was] myche lyke the Kynge Edwardes lyvery, the sunne with stremys; and the myste was so thycke, that a manne myghte not porfytely juge one thynge from anothere; so the Erle of Warwikes menne shott and faught ayens the Erle of Oxenfordes and his menne cryed “treasoune! treasoune!” and fledde awaye from the felde withe viij c menne. The Lorde Markes Montagu was agreyde and apoyntede with Kynge Edwarde, and put uppone hym Kinge Edwardes lyvery; and a manne of the Erles of Warwyke sawe that, and felle upponne hyme, and kyllede him.  And whenne the Erle of Warwyke saw his brother dede, and the Erle of Oxenford fledde, he lepte upon horse-backe, and flede to a wode by the felde of Barnett…

And it goes on to then describe the manner and means of the death of the earl of Warwick. (italics mine)

Just to get a fuller picture of who was writing what at (or around) the time: Croyland doesn’t mention any of this in his very brief description of the battle.

In the morning a dreadful engagement took place, in which there fell various nobles of either party. Of the side of those who were of King Henry’s party, there fell those two most famous nobles, the brothers, Richard earl of Warwick, and John, marquis of Montagu.

The Arrivall has this to say:

In this battayle was slayne the Erle of Warwyke, somewhat fleinge … There was also slayne the Marques Montagwe, in playne battayle…

So, just assuming for a moment that the author of Warkworth’s Chronicle had some snippet of information that the other two lacked, that being: At some point during the battle, where he was seen by only one man, John Nevill replaced his own livery with that of the king he was fighting against. If he had put it on under his armour, that would necessitate removing his armour to expose it to the eyes of his brother’s man. Who promptly killed him. As a strategy – either for (as I discuss below) an attempted escape or a change of sides, it failed miserably. Not, one would have thought, quite in keeping with the much vaunted (and likely true) military genius of John Nevill. That this change of clothes somehow happened in the thick of battle is quite clear – according to Warkworth, Warwick saw his brother fall (or at least his colours). I know it was misty, and maybe he ducked behind a hedge while people’s attention was directed elsewhere, but… Of course, he might have withdrawn temporarily, told his officers what was up, changed clothes and headed back to the fight.

So, maybe he was wearing Edward’s livery under his own, and just whipped the top layer off at the (as it happens) most inopportune moment. There are a number of things wrong with this suggestion. Firstly, if the distrust between the brothers was so great that Warwick had salted his men in Montagu’s army, this would have been noticed long before the reveal moment. Secondly, assuming that Montagu had agreed and appointed with Edward to change sides, it seems awfully odd (and woefully unprepared) to be doing this single handed. And thirdly, given the possibility that a large enough number of his men were going to follow him to make it work, and given that they too would have been disguised – ready to whip off their top layer and slay their oh so temporary allies – none of them did. And there’s no mention of any similarly dressed corpses. One way of surviving this battle might have been for these double-dressed men to discard the top layer as they ran for their lives in the rout. It had been done before**… There’s no mention of abandoned livery at Barnet.

But perhaps this wasn’t about torn loyalties at all. Maybe this was about self-seeking, weaselly, looking out for himself… Oh, sorry, that’s George! But to give it some serious consideration, just for a moment – Warkworth reports this change of clothes happening at the moment when it should be clear to Montagu, experienced soldier that he is, that all is not well. He has an escape plan, attempts to put it into action and is thwarted at the last moment by that pesky spy his brother has slipped into his army. This is quite definitely not the John that so many people have come to know and love through the pages of historical fiction. Whatever that John Nevill may do, it doesn’t include attempting to disguise himself in order to save his own arse at the expense of others. If Warkworth is correct, it must be considered at least a possibility.

But it’s what happens after Barnet that calls Warkworth into question for me. John is not hailed as a great hero by the king he supposedly agreed and appointed with, whose livery he was wearing when he died. His body is taken to London and exposed for view, along with that of Warwick. He is given a more than honourable funeral and his widow is left in peace (unlike Warwick’s), but this says more to me about Edward than about John. Montagu didn’t have enough property worth stealing and maybe the king was simply more charmed by Isobel than by Anne. The king needed to reward his brothers, Gloucester more than Clarence, and impoverishing Isobel and disinheriting her children would have reaped but a small reward. John’s widow was given no additional honours, property or other reward (except a half decent second husband), which would surely accrue to the widow of a Great Hero who Stayed Loyal to His King and Died Wearing His Colours.

The 1472 Parliamentary Roll doesn’t mention any incipient heroism on John’s part. In fact, it quite clearly states the opposite:

 The kyng oure sovereigne lord, consideryng the grete and horible treasons and < other offenses > doon to his highnes by John Nevile, late Marquys Mountague, entended by the auctorite of this present parlement to have atteynted and disabled the said late marquys and his heires for ever, accordyng to his demerites, which to doo the same, oure sovereigne lord, at the humble request and prayer, aswell of his right dere brother Richard, duc of Gloucestr’, and other lordes of his blode, as of other of his lordes, spareth and will no ferther in that behalf procede…

If John had been about to turn, there’s no earthly reason for Edward to have kept it a secret.

What seems odder still to me is that John is lionised and sentimentalised for behaviour (disloyalty to his brother Warwick) that earns the archbishop of York eternal scorn and opprobrium. It seems that the lesson is clear: If John does it, it’s Heroic, if George does it, it’s Weaselly.

There’s a good deal more to John Nevill than many books of historical fiction would have us believe. He wasn’t a Sensitive New Age Guy somehow transported back to the middle ages. He wasn’t the lighter half of Warwick’s soul. He chose his moment to declare for his brother very carefully. Warwick knew what was going on in England amongst his followers while he was in exile in France. He kept up correspondence with them and I don’t doubt for a moment that one of them was John. The prevailing view seems to be that he woke up one morning, months after accepting the marquis for earl deal, and all that came with it, and suddenly had a change of heart. “This just isn’t good enough! I think I’ll have a chat with my men and change sides.” His defection, I submit, was well in train long before this. And once his decision was made, he stuck to it and he died for it. To believe otherwise is to believe that John Nevill was no better than his brother George who changed his loyalty almost on whim, or when the going got tough, leaving Warwick alone and hung out to dry.

* Even Hicks buys into this (and, until I ferret out the page reference and update, I’m paraphrasing) when he says that John represented all that was noble in Warwick and George all that was not.

** I apologise for linking to a wikipedia entry, especially before checking it, but it was there, so…

  1. Susan Higginbotham says:

    Great post! I don’t understand the touchy-feely version of John Neville at all. Personally, I suspect that if John had been in the process of defecting to the Yorkists when he died, the Arrival would have made the most of this, instead of reporting simply that he died in plain battle, and that his son would have been allowed to keep his dukedom.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Thanks, Susan. I totally agree re the Arrival. To be named in parliament as a perpetrator of ‘great and horrible treasons’ isn’t much reward for a man who supposedly died in the process of changing sides. I think part of it’s that people still date the WoR from 1455 and don’t bother finding out what happened before then. Window smashing John, would be tennant hanging John, Percy hunting John – might just get them to change their minds a little!

  2. MorningGlory says:

    Hello, Karen!

    I recently discovered your blog (from Susan Higginbotham’s blog) and I’ve enjoyed reading it! I’m just wondering if you could list some books that would be helpful for me in knowing more about John Nevill. You mentioned that many people don’t know the “window-smashing, Percy-hunting John”. What books would you suggest that you feel give a more rounded view of him? I also have an interest in the Nevill family during this time period and any suggestions will be greatly appreciated!


  3. anevillfeast says:

    Hi MorningGlory! Susan’s sent a lot of traffic my way, for which I am most sickeningly thankful. Welcome to the Feast.

    As to books: Michael Hicks & A J Pollard have both written fine biographies of Warwick (& both called Warwick The Kingmaker). Hicks has more about his siblings than Pollard.

    Pollard also has another very useful book – North-East England During the Wars of the Roses – with a couple of solid chapters on the Nevills. (I don’t own a copy of this one, but I found one in the ANU library – if you have access to a uni library, you’ll probably find it there. Local library – I’m not sure.)

    All three of these books have been indispensible to me.

    Ralph Griffiths’s article Local Rivalries & National Politics: the Percies, the Nevills & the Duke of Exeter is also excellent.
    TB Pugh’s article Richard Duke of York, & the Rebellion of Henry Holand, Duke of Exeter, in May 1545 I also found useful.
    (I have copies of these articles and can send them to you, if you like.)

    There are some other, smaller, articles, but these two are the best I’ve come across so far.

    So far as I know, no-one’s written a dedicated biography of John, even in article form.

    Hope this helps!

    • MorningGlory says:

      Thank you for replying, Karen! I will be hunting down those books you recommended! As for sending me the articles, could you contact me via e-mail so we could work out something? I don’t mean to cause more work for you (you’re already working on a book or two or three…) but I would love to read those articles!

      Thanks again,

  4. jayne62 says:

    Is it known when John actually changed sides?. Was it to do with losing the Earl of Northumbeland title and given the Montagu one ?

  5. jayne62 says:

    Great. Read that now. Thanks

  6. Ben Amponsah says:

    Oh come on! I think Sharon gets the psychology and motives absolutely correct and John Neville is one. Although he was a staunch supporter of Richard Neville, this man was also his believed elder brother and as we know blood is thicker than water…look at how many transgressions Clarence was allowed before Edward IV decided he’d gone too far.

    • anevillfeast says:

      Hi, Ben. Sharon gets the psychology and motives of *her* characters absolutely correct, in terms of her book and her writing. Other writers are free, surely, to explore the psychology and motives of the same characters from their own perspective.

      • Ben says:

        Agreed but as a qualified psychologist and counsellor I have to say that it’s Sharon’s explanations I find most plausible

      • anevillfeast says:

        Ben, I’m delighted you’ve found an interpretation of John Nevill that you find plausible. I think, perhaps, if her research had take into account his actions and activities in the 1450s (and I understand why it didn’t) then she might have come to slightly different conclusions.

      • Ben Amponsah says:

        Thanks. What did he do in the 1450s? I am thinking of writing about the much less well known Richard Duke of York (i.e. The sons of York’s father) as I am actually quite fascinated by the period that precipitated this final explosion of the wars. I can’t see anyone who has written about him as yet…

      • anevillfeast says:

        John was shoulder deep in the Nevill/Percy feud in the 1450s.
        Your project sounds interesting. A couple of people have written novels centred around the duchess of York. I’m not sure if there are any serious attempts to novelise *his* life yet, so go for it!

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