Archive for July, 2015

This post was inspired by a question asked by a facebook friend: How do I manage to research the 15th century, and the Nevills in particular, from the other side of the world?

Twenty years ago (or thereabouts) when I first started using the internet, I was delighted to discover this site. It’s called The Labyrinth, and it’s an absolute trove of material – even more now than it was then. I was finishing my linguistics degree with two units of early English and finding the Paston Letters online (among other things)  had me dancing with joy.  I didn’t even come close to imagining then what a rich vein of research gold the internet would become. References in secondary sources I’d have despaired of finding twenty years ago are just a search away – sometimes quick and sometimes not so quick! The Coventry Leet Book? It’s there! The Fight at Clyst? Here it is! Letters & Papers Illustrative of the Reign of Henry VI? At your fingertips! And just about every 15th century chronicle you can think of; Rolls of Parliament; collections of sumptuary laws, royal household accounts and – of course! – Paston Letters by the thousand. Google it! If you don’t find it on the first try, don’t give up. (But maybe after three missed meals and hungry children/cats/dogs milling around your feet, you probably should.)

I can’t always easily access material in local records offices – which can be more than a little frustrating – but some can be very helpful and generous. Googling is always worth a punt. There are times when I’ve thought “I won’t be able to find this, surely!” and – lo! – I have found it. I’ve still needed to buy hard copies from time to time – Gregory’s Chronicle (though I did find that online after I bought the book); Benet’s Chronicle (in Latin, but I can usually get the gist); and (irony of ironies) volumes 3 & 4 of Gairdner’s edition of the Paston Letters – available as ebooks but it’s very difficult to match the citations – sometimes paper is better than bits.

Being a member of my local state reference library is enormously helpful when it comes to accessing journal articles for free, as well as ODNB articles. (And my thanks to Dorothea Preis for her help and advice in this.) I reckon I’ve saved hundreds of dollars this way – more money to spend on books!

So, if you have an internet connection, there’s no excuse! No need to choose just one or two authors of secondary texts as the basis for your understanding of history. It’s sometimes difficult to choose if you have a limited book budget (as most of us do) and you can end up inadvertently choosing a writer with a particularly strong bias, or who cherrypicks their facts to fit a predetermined conclusion. How can you possibly know this if you haven’t gone back to the primary sources? Even the very finest historians make errors, or interpret things one way when there’s a perfectly viable (and logical) alternative. (One (undated) letter, three historians – three perfectly plausible dates, all determined from the context and clues in the letter itself. They can’t all be right, and maybe they’re all wrong. The letter was obviously written on a particular date, we just don’t know (for certain) when that was. If one of the dates makes sense, go with it. if you change your mind (as I did) then change it. If you think there’s a fourth date that makes even better sense, go with that! I guess if there’s one lesson I’ve learned from my earlier fairly typical shallow research of the keen-but-busy-with-other-things history lover and the deeper research I’m doing now, it’s that keeping an open mind is hugely important. Being wrong is a step along the road to being right – but only for those who are prepared to lift their foot and actually take that step.)

I’ve also benefited (and benefited others) from a sharing of sources, links, articles &c. Other writers and researchers can be enormously generous. I’d beware, though, of those who demand sources from you and habitually refuse to share their own. When a request for a source results in silence and a temporary disappearance, you can be pretty sure they don’t have a source to share. There’s a surprising number of people who read or hear something, take it as an article of faith and never challenge it. While I am pretty much always happy to share my sources, I am now at the point where I’m a little more hesitant to share with people who won’t (or can’t) reciprocate. (Anyone who caught the rather peculiar spate of trolling on my last post should be able to work out why I’ve come to this point. Nasty is nasty, however the trolls try and justify their behaviour. And any troll who expects a blogger to put the kettle on and break out the Timtams is delusional.)


No Timtams for trolls!

So, in summary: there’s lots of stuff online (lots of stuff, lots and lots and lots of stuff) from primary sources to journal articles. All of it can be accessed, some more easily than others, and it’s all valuable stuff to read. If you have a particularly strong bias, some of that stuff will challenge it. Go with it, I say! Allow yourself to be challenged. If you’re right, you’ll stay right. If you’re wrong, you might learn something new and be one step closer to being right. Being right is great, but sometimes it’s a bit of a journey to get there. Being wrong isn’t the end of the world, unless the thing you’re wrong about is the thing your world is built on. Then you might be in a bit of bother!

Oh, and one last point about wikipedia. It can be quite useful as a jumping off point, or a quick reminder of the names of someone’s children or when a king was born, crowned or died, but only after that’s all been corroborated by other sources. I use the wikipedia entry on Ralph Nevill, for instance, to jog my memory when it comes to the names and titles of his children. I don’t use the earl of Salisbury’s entry to jog my memory when it comes to the order his children were born in – that seems to be something of a mystery to everyone.


First, to clarify, for the purposes of this discussion the correct standpoint isn’t a mindset; it isn’t the simple conclusion that the precontract didn’t, in fact, take place. The correct standpoint is the point in time when the precontract was ‘revealed’, ie in the early months of Richard III’s reign. That’s the first time we hear of it and it’s from that standpoint it should be examined. We’ve been rather peppered in the last few weeks with claims that because a marriage between Edward IV and Eleanor Butler could have taken place under particular conditions that constitutes proof it did take place. There are also claims that because there are three points of resemblance between Eleanor Butler and Elizabeth Wydeville, this constitute further proof a marriage took place. Eleanor Butler and Elizabeth Wydeville were both a) older than Edward; b) widows; and c) had, at some point, petitioned Edward for the return of misappropriated lands.

So, firstly, just for the moment assuming that the following scenario equates to ‘legally binding marriage’ (and that, in itself, is debatable)…

Edward: Oh, Eleanor, you are so hot! I can’t wait to get you into bed! We could do it now, there’s no-one around.
Eleanor: But I’m a good girl! ‘Twould be a sin if we were to lie together without benefit of marriage. I would be spoiled! And no man would look at me through respectful eyes, ever again. Say you’ll marry me and I’m yours!
Edward: Ok, sure, whatever you want, baby
[sexual activity follows and – bingo! – Edward and Eleanor are legally and irrevocably married.]

Just saying that’s a correct interpretation of the law: no witnesses, no ceremony, just “I’ll marry you”; ‘Ok” and a roll in the hay and two people are legally married. Here are the two really big problems with that.

1. It might have happened, doesn’t mean it did happen. All kinds of things might have happened. Richard III might have let himself into the Tower and smothered his nephews with his own hands. Anyone trying to use this as ‘proof’ he did let himself into the Tower and smother his nephews with his own hands would, quite rightly, meet with some argument. Coming up with a scenario that seems to answer the major problems with the precontract story, ie the lack of witnesses and the twenty years of silence on the matter, doesn’t constitute any kind of proof. And, clearly, that’s what it’s designed to do. Because proof of the precontract is crucial to the whole ‘Richard was innocent’ stance. Doubts about the precontract lead to doubts about the legality of Richard’s kingship which lead to the realisation that, yes, he might have been a usurper. And that Richard, though he might be perfectly acceptable to a lot of us, simply isn’t acceptable to that small core of ‘Ricardians’ who base their views of Richard on the first novel they read about his life. (Why the historical Richard isn’t good enough for these people baffles me. He clearly isn’t, or they wouldn’t spend quite so much time and energy trying to turn him into something he wasn’t. He deserves better than that, like whatever the ‘reality’ of his life and reign being studied, warts and all, rather than suppressed and replaced by someone he himself would simply not recognise.)

But back to the precontract story…

2. The points of similarity between Elizabeth Wydeville and Eleanor Butler are also used as ‘proof’ it took place. If there was independent evidence of the precontract, those points of similarity might serve as further evidence. On their own, they mean nothing – and that’s simply because there’s a twenty year silence on the matter between the time the marriage is said to have taken place and the time it was ‘revealed’. Looking at it from the correct standpoint, Eleanor Butler may have been chosen as Edward’s ‘first wife’ simply because of those similarities. A pattern can be established after the fact. A suitable candidate can be found because she fits an already known set of criteria. While I totally accept that it is possible Edward IV contracted an irregular marriage with someone before he married Elizabeth Wydeville (though I do think it unlikely), I also totally accept it is entirely possible Eleanor Butler’s name came up because a) she was dead; and b) she was a widow, older than Edward and had once personally appealed to him for the return of her lands – all of which we already know relates to Elizabeth Wydeville. Looking at it from the correct standpoint, she was the perfect choice.

And lastly, just a passing thought, if typing academic qualifications in ALL CAPS is supposed to silence all questions, then – surely! – it must equally apply to all academics, including PROFESSOR Pollard, PROFESSOR Hicks and DOCTOR David Starkey. Or, more correctly, it really shouldn’t apply to any of them – respect for historians and academics is always a good starting point but crying ‘Questioning is Forbidden!’ when one’s favourite historian’s work or words are challenged while feeling entirely free to personally denigrate those whose work and words one doesn’t accept as gospel is both hypocritical and intellectually dishonest.