Day 13: The Final Battle

So Richard became king. He had many supporters, but many enemies. One was his dead brother Edward’s widow Elizabeth Woodville—mother of the nephews in the tower, head of a family abruptly out of power. Another was Margaret Beaufort, great-great-granddaughter of Edward III, he already the ancestor of seven kings of England.

A contemporary of Henry VI and Edward IV, Margaret had given birth at age 13 to a son. Her husband, who died when the boy was an infant, was the Welsh nobleman Edmund Tudor. A religious zealot, Margaret believed all her life that her boy Henry was destined to be king. And throughout everything including exile and separation, she urged this obsession on her son for decades.

When Richard took the crown in 1483, various nobles opposing him supported Henry’s return from exile. His mother knew the moment of destiny had come. And so Henry Tudor returned and challenged Richard.

They met on Bosworth Field, about 100 miles north of London, in 1485. Which is where I was standing today.

It’s still a field, with a hill, marsh, and forests just where they’d been when they had shaped the battle. The noise and smoke would have been horrific. There would be carpets of dead bodies, terrified horses falling everywhere, tens of thousands of exhausted men literally fighting for their lives.

King Richard’s horse was eventually killed, tumbling Richard to the ground. The king wanted to keep fighting, so he yelled out for a fresh mount—“My horse! My kingdom for a horse!” Alas, he was soon cornered and killed. Not captured, but killed. His crown was physically handed to Henry Tudor, the commander of the winning army.

Henry Tudor became Henry VII.
He married Elizabeth of York, the dead Edward IV’s daughter, uniting the long-battling Lancastrian and Yorkist families, ending the Wars of the Roses. Thus his symbol was a white and red rose intertwined. Henry VII started the Tudor dynasty; his son would eventually be crowned Henry VIII, and his daughter would eventually be crowned Elizabeth I.

This was the day that I’d been planning for almost a year. The end of the 300-year Plantagenet dynasty, and the start of the Tudor dynasty. The end of the Middle Ages, opening the door to the Renaissance. Today was 1485, and I was at Bosworth, right where I belonged.

I now understand the difference between Edward III, IV, and V, and Henry IV, V, VI, and VII. I know the difference between Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and French architecture, and between English Gothic and Perpendicular Gothic. I’ve learned the difference between Margaret of Anjou and Margaret Beaufort. And I can tell you why it all matters.

I suppose what doesn’t really matter is that I know these things. I created and went on this trip for the very same reason that people did things in the Middle Ages—because it seemed like a good idea.

It was.

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Day 12: A Day With King Richard

This rainy morning I walked to Leicester Cathedral. Far less grand than York’s, it was tastefully built in 1086 in a beautiful brown stone I hadn’t yet seen in England. I was here to see Richard.

Decade by decade, the Wars of the Roses gradually eliminated almost every legitimate contender for the throne of England. With the death of the Yorkist King Edward IV in 1483, his oldest son of course succeeded him (as Edward V). But the new king was only twelve years old (with an even younger brother), and so a Regent was needed. The dead king’s brother Richard was the logical choice.

After years as a military and political figure (and the King’s beloved advisor), Richard had amassed his own power base. These people stood to gain immensely were Richard to become king. There was no comparable Lancastrian figure—the Lancastrian king Henry VI only had one son, killed at Towton. All that stood in the way of Richard’s succession were his two nephews, the dead king’s sons.

It was a turbulent time, and so Richard—Regent and Uncle, brother of the king so recently dead—had the boys escorted to the Tower of London for their temporary safety.

And that’s the last that anyone ever saw of them. Did Richard have them killed? People have been arguing about it ever since. But with the boys gone, Richard took the crown as his own, becoming Richard III, Shakespeare’s hunchback villain and history’s obsession.

Across from the Cathedral is the new Richard the Third Center. Its genealogies and displays of medieval clothes and weapons were by now familiar. It did have a wonderful display on the historiography of Richard—how he has been described and portrayed through the centuries. Contrasting film clips featuring Lawrence Olivier, Kenneth Branagh, and Kevin Spacey were fascinating.

Richard ruled only two years, killed in the climactic battle of the Wars of the Roses (which we’ll visit tomorrow). For political reasons, he was buried with only minimal honors, and eventually his burial site was considered lost to the ages. And then in 2012 a group of persistent archeologists discovered it under a parking lot 300 yards from the church—a million to one chance, validated 100% by DNA testing.After a terrible legal fight between the cities of York and Leicester (at least they didn’t use archers or cannon), Richard was reburied in Leicester cathedral with enormously solemn ceremony in 2015 (the Cathedral’s video of this is quite moving).

This Richard has been reimagined—by some—as a devoted prince, rising to (and dying for) the civic duty of protecting his fragile country. The cathedral built a beautiful gothic chamber to house his remains. On the floor above the buried casket is a low plinth of silent black Irish stone (he was Governor there), inscribed Richard III. Topping that is an elegant piece of ancient local marble carved coffin-shape and inscribed with a cross.

This is where I touched a king. King Richard. For a long, intimate moment I had him all to myself. I would have given almost anything to know…when you took the crown, Richard Plantagenet, Duke of Gloucester, what were you thinking? What did you want? How did you feel?

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Day 11: A Day in the Country at Conisborough

Today we drove south into Yorkist country, and headed for Conisborough Castle. It sat on the sidelines during the Wars of the Roses, but it’s an architectural gem with a quirky history.

The castle was built by William, Earl of Surrey who had taken part in the Norman conquest of England in 1066. He was rewarded by his father-in-law William the Conqueror with extensive estates, including the land on which to build Conisborough.

Several generations later it pass through marriage to Hamelin Plantagenet, the illegitimate half-brother of King Henry II. Hamelin extensively rebuilt the castle in the 1180s, including the gorgeous stone tower. If you’re a fan of Magna Carta you’ll enjoy knowing that King John visited the castle in 1201.

Eventually Edward III gave the castle to his son Edmund, Duke of York. Two generations later it was inherited by Richard of York—who had, you’ll recall, tried to seize the crown from Henry VI, but died at the Battle of Wakefield in 1460. His son Edward then inherited it, and when he seized the throne as Edward IV at the Battle of Towton in 1461, the castle once again belonged to the Crown.

It gradually fell into some disrepair, but it wasn’t attacked, Cromwell didn’t destroy it, and so it sat there accumulating a lovely patina. In 1811 Sir Walter Scott rode by and later used the location for his novel Ivanhoe. That made the castle a tourist attraction, so a century later the government restored it, and it’s now glorious again.

It’s an innovative design, with polygonal corners to improve its defense, and walls that flare out at ground level to discourage undermining during sieges. The sun came out as we we climbed the tower, and it shown straight through the window of the Lady’s Chapel on the third floor. The commanding views from the parapet were peacefully stunning.

From here we continued driving south to Leicester, where we had a date with a king.

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Day 10: Castles & Walls

For our last day in this area, we drove south again, on England’s A1 motorway (essentially a modern version of the 500-year-old Great North Road between London and Edinburgh).

An hour later, we arrived at a small hill studded with medieval walls. Pontefract Castle was constructed around 1070 by Ilbert de Lacy on land granted personally by Willam the Conqueror as a reward for his support during the Norman Conquest. It passed out and back into the family with the fortunes of war, and in 1311 it came into the House of Lancaster, and so eventually to John of Gaunt, third son of King Edward III. Gaunt was the kingdom’s richest, most respected statesman.

As the 14th century ended, King Richard II (king because his father was Gaunt’s older brother) exiled John of Gaunt’s son Henry Bolingbroke. When Gaunt died, his son Henry should have been invited back to receive his enormous lands—including Pontefract—but Richard II seized and gave them away to his cronies.

Bolingbroke responded by returning to England with a private army. He headed for Pontefract, rallied the local nobles (aghast that Gaunt’s property had been seized—who would be the next target?), and with Richard in Ireland at the time, declared himself King Henry IV. Henry eventually captured Richard and dragged him to Pontefract Castle, where he died.

By preventing Henry’s inheritance, Richard had broken feudal protocol. By deposing an anointed king, Henry had overturned the natural order of the world even more. Thus began the blood feud between the Yorkist and Lancastrian branches of the royal Plantagenet family, setting the stage for a half-century of civil war.

The remains at Pontefract aren’t extensive. But the hilltop’s central location hasn’t changed, and when the wind quieted, we thought we could feel betrayal in the air, and hear vows of vengeance. After a few moments we drove straight into the late-afternoon sun, to Wakefield.
It’s 1460. Henry IV has died. His son Henry V has died. His grandson Henry VI has been king almost 40 years—a weak, sometimes-mad, unprepared king whom no one respects. His wife, the intelligent and noble-born Margaret of Anjou, is the real power behind the throne.

Richard Plantagenet—a Yorkist great-grandson of Edward III with a legitimate claim to the throne, grabs for it. He and the Lancastrian nobility compromise—Henry VI can remain king, but Richard is recognized as his heir, disinheriting Henry’s and Margaret’s son. But Richard can’t wait, and Margaret’s enraged. At Wakefield’s Sandal Castle he is stunned to encounter an enormous Lancastrian force.

Outmaneuvered by an army marched here from Pontefract and personally commanded by Queen Margaret, the Yorkists are crushed. Richard himself is killed, putting the Yorkists in the hands of his son Edward. Two months later, at the Battle of Towton (yes, at the very site we visited just days ago), Edward will get revenge, butchering a retreating Lancastrian army and declaring himself Edward IV. He will reign for 22 years, until he dies in bed—after which the killing will resume.

The Sandal castle’s remains are still standing. We climbed up to the top and surveyed the landscape, barely changed in 560 years. I could see the same road the Yorkists marched on, and the same forests in which Margaret hid her ambushing divisions. Richard never had a chance. The deaths of so many nobles at Wakefield cleared the way for a new generation on each side to pick up the seemingly endless cause.
After driving back to York, I finished off the day with a walk on its famous medieval walls. They are in fabulous condition, built on the Roman (of course) footprint. Several original gates into the city are still intact. Cars and bikes pass through them every day; I took my chances and simply gawked at one for several minutes, my last in this city of Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Norman, and medieval treasures.

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Day 9: York Cathedral, From Bottom to Top

I had a perfect day today at York Minster (Cathedral). I started below it, continued above it, and finished in the center of it.

The first church on the site was built in 627CE. One big fire and a few Viking raids later, it was again damaged (along with the whole rebellious area) by William the Conqueror in 1069CE.

As soon as things settled down politically, work began on a grand Norman stone church. A century later, plans changed to showcase the snazzy new Gothic style imported from the Continent. York’s Archbishop ordered that the cathedral be built to rival Canterbury (its only architectural competitor to this day), damn the expense. It’s now the second-largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe.

I started the day with a special tour of the underground crypt. Protected down there from the wear-and-tear of everyday use, it is remarkably well-preserved. Our passionate guide lovingly showed us features of the Roman, Norman, and Gothic foundations, as well as later medieval and Victorian upgrades.

With all the old stone I’ve seen around the world, she showed us something I’d never seen: mason’s marks. These are monograms inconspicuously chipped into finished stone so the accountants would know how much to pay each craftsman. Using a flashlight, she also showed us tiny parallel striations meticulously scratched into the stone surface that would catch the light and make the stone shimmer.

The next special tour continued our affinity for stone. Leaving the building, we entered the stoneyard to see and touch the cut-to-order blocks of limestone arriving from the same quarry as the original stone that built the cathedral. Then we went to the masons’ actual workshops, talking with the masters who map and draw the individual stones, and observing the journeymen who were chip, chip, chipping away, creating hand-carved replacements for stones (including gargoyles, window ornaments, and vaulting) that need replacement.

The artisans spoke humbly about working in tandem with their brilliant predecessors of 600 and 800 years ago. I myself have a tiny taste of this when I play music written during the Renaissance—communing with a fellow artist (albeit one far grander than I!) to produce the sound he imagined when he composed.

Exiting the workshops we donned hard hats and took a construction elevator nine stories up. We walked the scaffolding surrounding a section of the Cathedral under renovation. We got to see and touch the carvings, repairs, and windows that mortals normally see from 100 or 200 feet below. We could watch the painstaking work of artisans, alone out there in the cold, chiseling an angel’s expression, or curling a saint’s toes. No one down below could possibly see the difference if a mason stopped short of perfection. But the masons up here knew no other standard for their work.

After a brief rest and late lunch (another tiresome pizza—if only these Brits could cook the way they used to build!), we returned to the Cathedral. The medieval glass is still beautiful—transcending centuries is the point of the artform. The soaring vaulting, the contrasting Gothic styles facing each other, the lachrymose memorials to dead soldiers, dead children, dead dreams, all combined to reduce our voices to whispers and slowed our pulses. They walked these floors twenty generations ago.

Among those buried there are Thomas Bayeux (who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry, narrating the Norman Conquest of 1066) and the infant son of 14th-century Edward III.

We walked into the Cathedral’s largest chapel for the Evensong service, mostly to hear the music. There was some chanting by the choir of twelve. And the Psalms that were recited were familiar, if repetitive. But I received an unexpected jolt when the Minister read the scriptural portion about the Jews killing Christ. I am not making this up—the week’s portion was about Pilate offering to free the arrested Jesus, but the Jews passionately objecting. And so Pilate ordered Christ killed.

Architecture, artisanship, and history aside, I was, after all, in an old Christian church. Hearing a very old—and very modern—Christian story.

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Day 8, Part II: The Killing Fields of Towton

While I pondered the bustling day in York, John brought the car around and we drove a half-hour southwest to the enormous battlefield of Towton. It was here on March 29, 1461 that the Wars of the Roses continued. The Yorkist royal contender completely routed the forces of Lancastrian Henry VI (who had ruled almost 40 years), declared himself King Edward IV, and drove the remaining Lancastrian leadership into exile. Spoiler alert: they do return; hence Wars of the Roses.

We parked at the side of the road and walked the empty killing field on a very cold, blustery, damp gray day as John retold the story. Towton was the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil—28,000 knights, archers, mercenaries, and peasant conscripts cut down in 10 hours of fighting. Having marched for days to get here, the two sides ultimately faced each other on a front that stretched a mile from left to right. Every man knew he was fighting a battle to the death. Sleet blew into the Lancastrians’ faces, and the wind behind the Yorkists gave their arrows an extra 30 yards of reach.

John and I stood shivering in the middle of the battle line, the field unchanged since then: a ridge here, trees over there, low ground cover between. We strained to hear the horrible groans and see the horrible sights of five centuries ago.

At the battle’s climax the Lancastrians broke and ran some five miles back to their camp, chased by Yorkists on horseback or foot, thirsty for blood. Their weapons were primitive but effective—archaeologists say that many, many people died of blunt-trauma head wounds.

On the drive back from Towton John spoke less than usual, and I was pretty quiet. Comfortable in our modern car with the heat turned on, we were still deeply chilled by the carnage we had vicariously experienced.

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Day 8: York’s Medieval Metropolis

York is halfway between London and Edinburgh. Occupied on and off for 10,000 years, the actual town was founded by the Roman IXth Legion in 71 BCE. When the Emperor died in 306CE, it was in York that Roman soldiers declared Constantine (later “the Great”) emperor.

York’s location in northern England, with access to the sea via the Ouse River, destined it for greatness. It became a seat of power, commerce, learning, and the arts for a succession of empires. The Vikings first terrorized it and then made it part of their trading network. Things got a huge boost when William the Conqueror arrived shortly after 1066.

I spent the day exploring the city. We started at Clifford’s Tower, all that’s left of the 12th century Norman castle built on the remains of William’s castle on a commanding hilltop. The small Jewish population in York during medieval times apparently became quite wealthy lending money to the king and various nobles. When the debts became too high for the nobles to manage, they’d encourage the local peasants to riot and kill the Jews, whose debts were then conveniently erased. Then the cycle would start again.

In 1190 all the city’s 150 Jews took refuge here at Clifford’s from a mob crazed by the belief that the Jews were ritually killing Gentile children (yes, the start of the Blood Libel). Depending on whom you believe, the Jews were either massacred by the mob, or they killed themselves Masada-style to avoid the mob’s torture and murder. A century later King Edward I expelled all the Jews in England, who didn’t return until invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1650.

I appreciate that the story of a crazed mob massacring the city’s Jews is presented in a fairly unblinking way by the signage and the city’s tourism industry. Throughout our two weeks together, John periodically repeated that in those days it wasn’t anti-semitism, but anti-judaism. The first is hatred of race: Jews can’t help who they are, and we hate them. The second is hatred of religion: Jews are choosing to be blind and ignorant, and we hate them. In the Middle Ages Jews could therefore save themselves by converting (if they wanted to)—the opposite of Hitler’s policy that a single drop of Jewish blood contaminated someone, which conversion could not change.

Once again I experienced first-hand the power and importance of William the Conqueror. He connected England and France politically, brought sophisticated Norman culture to England, and united the various clans here—some by bribery, some by marriage, and many through a brutal scorched-earth policy in 1069.

Walking the medieval cobblestoned streets, we stopped at two churches—All Saints and Holy Trinity Goodramgate. They were both pre-Norman, Anglo-Saxon churches, built before The Conquest. As with all the old churches across Europe, some of its finest artwork—frescos, statues, stained-glass windows—was damaged or destroyed in the iconoclastic frenzy of the 16th-century Reformation. My expert guide John was able to show me where, over time, the architecture transitioned from Romanesque to early Gothic to later Gothic.

These and dozens of other places in York are living textbooks, with stones and wood arranged in ways both exotic and familiar. After all, steps are steps and roofs are roofs. But we know that material culture shapes the people in it. How did the dramatically limited light in these people’s lives affect their perception of color? How did the ongoing near-silence (no cars or planes, no electronics, no ringing phones or talking TVs) affect their response to a baby crying? Calf-deep in mud or straw most of their waking hours, how did they perceive the stone floor of a church?


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